Psychology professor Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill outlines how educators should respond if they believe they have seen signs of mental illness in a student.
Professor of Psychology,University of Texas, San Antonio
PhD in Clinical Psychology, MA and BA in Psychology
One evening, I received an email from a student explaining that he had missed an assignment deadline because he was so stressed that he no longer felt like living. I immediately contacted our campus police, and they sent an officer out for a welfare check. The next day, the student stopped by my office and said, “Geez, if I had known you were going to push the panic button, I wouldn’t have said anything!” However, he did acknowledge that my having reached out reminded him that people really do care about him. He quickly made an appointment with our campus counseling service.
I am confident I am not alone in this experience. But no guidebook explains how educators should respond to these requests. When do we assume that they are attempts to get excused absences or grade leniency, and when should we act? Figuring out the correct course of action can be taxing, but the failure to respond effectively can have devastating personal, professional, ethical, and legal consequences. So what should an educator—with little to no mental health training—do?
First, know the warning signs of suicide and violence
It is critical to be alert for escalating distress or aggression—things can change quickly. Warning signs of suicide include a person talking about wanting to die, planning a way to kill themselves, feeling hopeless or trapped, or feeling they are a burden to others; using substances or engaging in reckless behavior; displaying agitation, isolation, extreme mood swings, or sleeping too little or too much; and focusing on rage or revenge (Rudd et al, 2006).
Warning signs of possible violence could be excessive tardiness; absenteeism or other attendance issues; decreased productivity, including poor judgment, mistakes, or wasting time or materials; safety issues; monopolizing supervisory time; and performing erratically. Other signs can include poor health and hygiene, depression, noticeable changes in behavior, lack of motivation, and signs of stress or conflict in their personal life (U.S. Department of Labor).
Remember, you do not have to determine whether the individual is actually going to attempt suicide or to hurt someone. Your job is to recognize the warning signs.
If you are concerned that an individual is a threat to themselves or others, you should contact law enforcement immediately. This can seem like a drastic response, but campus police are typically trained to manage risk and to transport people to a hospital emergency room for their own safety.
If the threat does not appear imminent but the student is clearly distressed, you have a variety of options:
- Offer to walk the student to the counseling center.
- Help them make an appointment while they are still in your office.
- Offer additional sources of support—disability services, LGBTQ organizations, or emergency financial assistance, among others.
- Ask your administration for a list of resources and contact people.
You have a responsibility to report harassment and assault
If a student discloses concerns about sexual harassment or assault, federal guidelines require faculty members to report that information to their Title IX office (Congressional Research Service). The college or university can then investigate the allegations and provide information and support to both the alleged victims and those who are accused.
What to do when you must act immediately
Referring a student for help and dealing with them in the heat of the moment are two different things. For many professors, the thought of talking to a student about mental illness or suicide, making reports about disturbing student behavior, or calling the police feels overwhelming. And unlike mental health professionals, police, and even K–12 teachers, college faculty rarely receive training in how to de-escalate tense interpersonal situations.
At the very least, managing such situations requires that you appear to be calm by modulating your facial expressions, physical movements, and tone of voice; listening attentively; and acknowledging how people feel (Noll, 2017).
There are multiple books and online programs that offer tips on responding effectively when people exhibit signs of mental health and distress, and on de-escalating conflict.
The bottom line: Today’s college students are reporting higher levels of stress and mental illness than did previous generations. While most college professors would prefer to focus on their research and teaching, student mental health is now an integral part of the job. Learning to respond effectively to students in distress can literally be lifesaving. It also reduces the time and energy we spend worrying about conflicts in class and disturbing emails, protects us legally, and can even improve our course success rates and evaluations because we address problems before they escalate. Plus, helping others is good for our own mental health.
Following is a list of recommended readings, both for general and for specific mental health–related issues that educators may face:
Benas, N. and M. Hart. Mental Health Emergencies. New York, NY: Hatherleigh Press, 2017.
Congressional Research Service. Title IX and Sexual Harassment: Private Rights of Action, Administrative Enforcement, and Proposed Regulations (https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45685.pdf). April 12, 2019.
MentalHealth.gov. “Suicidal Behavior” (https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/suicidal-behavior).
National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. Behavioral Interventions Teams (https://www.nabita.org/).
Noll, D.E. De-Escalate. New York, NY. Atria Press. 2017.
Rudd, M.D.; A.L. Berman; T.E. Joiner, Jr.; M.K. Nock; M.M. Silverman; M. Mandrusiak, et al. “Warning Signs for Suicide: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications” (http://nocklab.fas.harvard.edu/files/nocklab/files/rudd_2006_warningsigns_suicide_sltb_0.pdf). Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, vol. 36, no. 3, 2006, pp. 255–262.
U.S. Department of Labor. DOL Workplace Violence Program (https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/human-resources-center/policies/workplace-violence-program).
Note: Course Hero neither endorses nor is responsible for the messages or statements, or for any opinion, advice, information, or other content made or displayed in this article by the author(s). The opinions expressed in this article reflect solely the opinion(s) of the author(s) and may not reflect the opinion(s) of Course Hero. Course Hero does not offer medical advice or diagnoses, treatment of any disease, injury, handicap or disability, or engage in the practice of medicine. The content in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, or monitoring and is offered for informational and communicative purposes only. The content in this article is not intended to be, and must not be taken to be, the practice of medicine, nursing, pharmacy, or other healthcare advice by Course Hero. If you have or suspect having any health problems or conditions, you should consult your general practitioner or other qualified health provider.
The content should never be used as a substitute for medical assistance or emergency care. If you are experiencing any kind of medical issue, contact your doctor. If you have a medical emergency, or are thinking about taking actions that may cause harm to yourself or to others, you should seek emergency treatment at the nearest emergency room, or dial 911.