Distressed students

It is comfortable to live on the surface so long as it remains unshaken. It is painful to break away from it and descend into an unknown ground. The tremendous amount of resistance against that act in every human being and the many pretexts invented to avoid the road into depth are natural. The pain of looking into one's own depth is too intense for most people. But there is no excuse which permits us to avoid the depth of truth, the only way to which lies through the depth of suffering. For in the depth is truth, and in the depth is hope, and in the depth is joy. -Paul Tillich

Students of concern

Word cloud with words related to mental health While having a psychological disorder can be highly distressing, distressed students do not always have a psychological disorder. Additionally other students who do have psychological disorders may not be particularly distressed. In social sciences parlance, we refer to this as the "correlation is not causation" axiom. All of this is to say that making assumptions about students (or, anyone, for that matter) is inadvisable, if what we are seeking is to understand them as individuals. One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to human beings. How do we best approach a student we suspect is distressed and are concerned about within an instructional role? It may feel daunting, but it's actually quite simple. It's accomplished through something you already do: extending compassion. Since psychological pain is invisible, I would advocate that compassionate communication is the best method to use when approaching every student. While we can suspect a student is distressed, psychological distress or disorder remains hidden unless a student chooses to express it. What we can observe in all of our students are their behaviors. We can also listen. Finally, we can gently make inquiry appropriate to the nature of our instructional roles, by asking questions of students we are concerned about. It helps to relate these kinds of inquiries to our wanting a student to be successful in our classes as well as reiterating our support for that student's personal and academic well-being. Even if a student fears being labeled as having a psychological illness, framing concern in this way usually reassures students that our intentions are not to judge or to stereotype, but rather, to care.

If one were to look beneath the range of clinical diagnoses we see in Psychological Services, many common themes would be seen. Students often endorse feeling deeply alone and emotionally malnourished. Many students who come to our center have experienced trauma. Amongst other things, traumatic experience ruptures the belief that life is safe, predictable, stable, and cohesive. Some traumatic circumstances involve violence. Some circumstances involve disparities of privilege (e.g. experiences of racism, sexual violence, discrimination around sexual orientation xenophobia, or religion). Whether coupled with trauma or not, experiences of personal, familial, and cultural alienation are common. Uncertainties about oneself, the world, and one's future abound. And, so too do the existential (and, oftentimes, clinical) anxieties that comes with making major life decisions. Students grapple with trying to find out and come to terms with who they are. They often endorse feeling as though they are failures. Many of the students seen in Psychological Services voice the desire to connect more meaningfully and profoundly with others, but aren't always sure of how to go about making connections. This is understandable, not only in the case of young students who may be struggling with this dynamic for developmental reasons. Having experienced hurt, rejection, alienation, and trauma, most definitely clouds a person's sense of trust and certainty about the nature of relationships. While most of the students I've described are experiencing some form of emotional pain, pain is "lived out" and expressed in a multitude of ways. Some students display their distress. Others mask it. Some seek to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol, or impulsive activities such as eating or shopping. Still others experience it without quite knowing what it is they are experiencing, and may feel disconnected from themselves and from their own behaviors.and actions.

It's helpful to be able to recognize some common behavioral signs of students in distress, and, in your role as an instructional faculty member, be able to talk to students about what you observe as opposed to what "might" be going on psychologically. You can probably identify some signs of a distressed student intuitively. These signs often manifest academically. You may notice a change in a student's academic performance. This can translate to poor attendance in class, chronic lateness, procrastination, inconsistencies in the quality of a student's work, sleeping in class, changes in appearance and behavior, multiple requests for special treatment, excessive anxiety and worry about satisfactory academic performance, just to name a few. You may also encounter students with more concerning signs. This can include students writing or voicing aloud suicidal thoughts or feelings, students threatening to harm others, students who appear out of contact with reality (i.e. seeing or hearing things others to not; expressing incoherent, disconnected thoughts, having difficulty separating fantasy from reality), students whose emotions are incongruent with their behaviors, and students who may be hostile, express suspicion, and behave in disruptive manners...just to name a few. There are differences in how you might go about addressing these different kinds of behaviors, and we will speak to the differences in responding to students of concern versus students exhibiting annoying, disruptive, or potentially unsafe behaviors.

A friend of mine who teaches has frames it this way: "as a teacher, you need to be sensitive, but your role is not that of a parent, nor a doctor, nor a therapist, nor a confident, nor a police or conduct officer. You best assist students by staying in your own lane." This is good advice, and one I follow myself when I am teaching. I heed boundaries and remain in my "teaching lane". I endeavor to be understanding and a good listener when students approach me. I normalize students' concerns, let them know that seeking support is a sign of strength, and refer a student to campus or community resources. But, I do not do therapy with students and I do not refer students to myself for any kind of psychological care when I am their instructor. Likewise, I do not refer student clientele that I work with in Psychological Services to my own course sections. Having unclear boundaries with students is unhealthy and potentially can be harmful to students. Students are already grappling with trying to clear interpersonal ambiguities in their lives. There's no need for us to add to it. The good news is that because we are a campus rich in resources, there's no need for any of us to engage in having "fuzzy boundaries" with students.