Dear Ms. Scholar, One of my students has disclosed that she is cutting herself on a regular basis. She says that she is not thinking about suicide and that she trusts me, but I really don’t know what I should be doing. Should I take her to the university counseling center? Should I attempt to get her hospitalized — or thrown out of school? I am spending a lot of time worrying about her, and now am freaking out, too.
Dear Freaking Out 2, You are not alone. With a recent report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (2014) indicating college students have high rates of self-injury, suicidal ideation, and thoughts of hurting others, it’s not surprising that many of us are actively worrying about one or more of our students and often feel like we are the slim thread between them and…
We worry because we care about them as individuals; it is part of what makes us effective faculty members. When our students perceive our caring, they turn to us with their concerns about homesickness, self-injury, depression, and suicidality. Most of us have not been trained to deal with such issues, however, so feel overwhelmed and hopeless as we listen to their concerns.
Responding to these concerns and getting students appropriate help is an issue of caring, but it’s also an issue of retention. Ms. Scholar personally knows at least two students who left this university because they did not perceive the kinds of support — especially counseling — that they needed. With recent changes at the university, we faculty and staff may have more difficulty recognizing how to get students the help they need.
Ms. Scholar is not recommending that you become your students’ therapist, as that is not your role or consistent with your training, but there are some things that you can do. You can:
- Reach out to your students and listen empathically. This doesn’t mean agreeing with them that suicide makes sense, but listening to and reflecting their feelings. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed right now and don’t know what to do.” It is invaluable for people to feel heard and their perspective understood, even when their hopeless conclusions are not affirmed.
- Normalize their experience and fears. After they understand that you’ve listened to and understood them, normalize their experience and fears — when appropriate. Many of our students are going through normal, yet upsetting, experiences. Many freshmen struggle with homesickness their first semester. Many students are upset when they perform less well in school than they’d like. Acknowledge that their experiences are common, appropriate to the situation, and upsetting (when they are).
- Help them see that things change. Always. Many students may see their problems as stable and unchanging. While it may feel that way, most things, even their depression and suicidality, do change. Accept their feelings that things will never change, without accepting that they are unchanging.
- Help them get hooked up with the social support they need. People with strong social supports generally do better, and the Counseling Center offers a range of services that may be helpful for a wide variety of problems. Ms. Scholar has called the Counseling Center with students to arrange an appointment, and has walked them over. She has encouraged them to talk to friends and family to ask for the social support they need. Some students may find it helpful to talk to their religious guide or higher power.
- Identify other resources they need. Although many students need social support, sometimes students need help with their classes (Tutoring Services), scheduling (their advisor or Advising Services), or financing college (Financial Aid). Sometimes helping students access such support helps them recognize that they aren’t alone — which sometimes can be enough to get them back on track.
- Take care of yourself. You have limited resources. Rather than exhausting your resources, make sure that you are taking care of yourself. When Ms. Scholar is eating, sleeping, talking to friends and colleagues, and taking care of herself, she does better — and assumes the same is true for you. Conversely, when she is frustrated or tired, she doesn’t respond as well. Find ways to retain the focus, patience, and empathy that will help you remain effective in your work with students.
- Ask for help. People in crisis frequently ask that you not share their concerns with anyone else. Empathize with their concerns, but ask their permission to share what’s happening with trusted colleagues including, possibly, people at the Counseling Center. Remember that two heads (in this case three) are better than one.
Just a reminder: when supporting people in crisis, it can often feel like you — and they — won’t get through it. You will get through this. You are not alone. — Ms. Scholar
Center for Collegiate Mental Health. (2014, January). 2013 Annual Report (Publication No. STA 14-43). Retrieved from http://ccmh.psu.edu/
If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com