Dear Ms. Scholar, I have a student in class who is visibly depressed. She no longer interacts with her classmates, appears less engaged and more apathetic than in previous semesters, is performing more poorly on homework, and is missing class and failing to turn in assignments. I’m worried sick. Any suggestions?
Dear Worried Sick, Talking to a student who isn’t doing well is often difficult, yet important. Our reaching out helps them feel heard and supported, two things that can make a significant difference.
It can be difficult for many people to reach out, because they can’t tell whether someone is only (only?) depressed or is actually suicidal. Is the depression short-term and situational or something more serious? However, my suggestions are equally valid for the person with depression or the one who is suicidal. Both need your support, your listening.
What can you do? Listen to your student calmly – or as calmly as you can. You may want to take a breath or do whatever you can to calm yourself down so that you can think more clearly. You may be panicking or feel overwhelmed, but remember your reactions are normal. Your worry and concern can, in fact, be helpful.
Respond to your student using active listening strategies. Reflective listening can help the student feel heard and understood, when their typical experience might have been to feel dismissed, avoided, misunderstood, or judged. When responding, you might start with a paraphrase like, “It sounds like…” and reflect what you hear (even if it is word for word). If you’re comfortable, use any feeling words the student may have used or implied, such as, “You must be feeling exhausted right now” or “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty overwhelmed with everything.”
Your listening can be helpful, but some students may need more support than you can offer. See figure. Make sure you are accessing all of the resources available to you (see, for example, those available from University of Alaska Anchorage).
Some of our difficulties in responding to someone who is depressed may stem from myths that many of us hold about depression and suicide:
- If I say something it will only make it worse. Often we fear that we are “putting ideas into the suicidal person’s head”; that is, we may believe that the person is at less risk of suicide if we stay quiet. In general, when we listen well and empathically, people feel that they aren’t alone and their depression and suicidality may decrease.
- They’re only saying this for attention. We all want attention and, sometimes, we ask for the wrong kinds of attention. However, a depressed or suicidal student is not merely seeking attention. Ms. Scholar finds that it is more useful to think that they don’t want to live like this. With that in mind, helping the student find ways of making life better can make things better.
- They’ve threatened before and haven’t done anything. They’re not going to attempt now. That would be reassuring if it were true – but it isn’t. People who have threatened suicide in the past are more likely to complete suicide in the future.
- I’m not a mental health counselor. What can I do? You can do a lot. You can listen to and support students and colleagues who appear to be depressed or contemplating suicide. You can make a referral to the Counseling Center. Ms. Scholar has a friend who has called Counseling to set up an appointment while the student is in her office (with the student’s approval); another friend has walked with students to the Counseling Center. These same friends talk about coping strategies in class and remind students of university, community, and familial resources available. You can also talk about alcohol abuse as alcohol abuse is often a contributing factor. In fact, there is some evidence that alcohol plays a role in one in three suicides.
Yes, listening to a student who is suicidal can be scary, but if you listen and if you care, you will help more than harm. Just as the Counseling Center can be an important resource for our students, you can also reach out to the Counseling Center to help you respond more effectively and handle being there for your students.
If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com