By Rebekah F. Schulze and Maureen C. Kenny
Many higher education professionals—faculty, staff, and campus administrators—struggle with how to best help students in distress, sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the number of students seeking their support. Perhaps they’ve worried about a student but felt unprepared or unqualified to intervene.
As the number of students in crisis rises, higher education professionals continue to be called upon to take on duties beyond their usual responsibilities. But knowing how and when to respond to a student who is struggling can make a significant impact on whether their crisis escalates, or if they get the assistance they need.
Higher education professionals often choose this career because they want to help. Their roles on campus put them in a good position to develop relationships with students who trust them with their personal problems, ranging from the small to the traumatic. However, being a trusted ear can often leave staff and administrators feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. Most are not trained to handle these student disclosures and instead learn on the job, gaining experience through each new conversation or crisis.
But higher education professionals don’t need to be experts in mental health disorders and their causes—in fact, quite the contrary. They just need to recognize basic signs and symptoms, know how to listen and show empathy, and know when it’s time for more trained professionals to step in.
The following tips, based on lessons from our book (Basic Counseling Skills for Higher Education Professionals: Identifying and Addressing Mental Health Concerns), can assist anyone in helping students navigate their emotional challenges.
Establish a relationship: There is probably no action more important than developing a relationship with students. Once they feel comfortable and trust you, they will likely come to you with an issue or be open in mentioning any concerns.
Get to know students beyond the surface. One technique we recommend is knowing students by “name and story.” Ask them who they are beyond just what you see at first glance. Find a way to make a connection. Family therapists have long used the concept of joining, which may also be a useful way of connecting with students. The goal of joining is to form a safe and trusting connection and remove any reticence the student may have about sharing personal struggles. According to Rajeswari Natrajan-Tyagi and Scott Woolley, effective joining can include briefly sharing mutual interests (e.g., “I like soccer too”), sharing general details about yourself (“The college I went to was similar to this one”), or asking questions to get to know the person.
Know the basics: As we said, you don’t need to be an expert, but you should know the basic signs and symptoms of a student in distress. Higher education professionals often see students frequently. Whether it’s in the classroom, as an advisor, or as a coach, keeping these signs in mind will help you identify when a student might be struggling.
You want to look for changes in behavior such as their eating and sleeping patterns. Look for drastic mood swings. Are they isolating from friends? It should raise a flag if they start giving up things that used to make them happy. If you notice, for example, one of your students who loves playing in a band suddenly gives it up, gives away their instrument, and is no longer showing any passion for music, that’s a definite cause for concern. Look for signs of prolonged worrying, sadness, irritability, or anger. Know some basic facts about the big issues that students grapple with, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
Be a good listener: People want to be heard. Really listening requires that you concentrate on what the student is sharing and focus solely on the present moment. For some students, this may be their first experience of being listened to by a sympathetic and attentive professional.
Listening requires undivided attention and a nonjudgmental stance. You must listen to the story being shared while also noticing how it is being shared. People will often convey emotions through their behavior. An easy example is a student whose voice begins to rise as he talks about not getting selected as an assistant in the chemistry lab. While he might not have said he is angry, his behavior and vocal tone indicate the contrary. Or consider another student, with her head down and tears in her eyes as she says, “I have never been this far away from my family for this long.” This statement contains the fact of the student being apart from family but also conveys feelings of homesickness and sadness that should be addressed. A good listener remembers the facts but also identifies the emotions.
According to Cigna’s Loneliness Index, Gen Z, or young people ages 18 to 22, are significantly more likely to be lonely than any other generation in the U.S. About 2 in 3 feel shy, like others don’t understand them, and that people around them are absent. Given that this age group represents a large majority of college students, awareness of this sense of loneliness can be a good starting place. Higher education professionals, by nature of their close contact with students, are in unique positions at their institutions to make an impact on this statistic by simply reaching out and talking with students about their daily lives and asking questions when they have a concern. Just being present in students’ lives and really seeing who they are can make a difference.
Don’t be afraid to ask if they are okay. We often fear that by asking students about their mental health, we’ll make it worse. This is a common misconception and is, in fact, one of the biggest myths. Giving a student who is struggling the space to talk often provides them with a great sense of relief. Once you’ve made this contact, you can then refer students to counseling or other professional services. Offer to make the phone call to the counseling center, take a walk with them, destigmatize help-seeking, and normalize the process. The more we talk about mental health and reduce the stigma, the more willing students will be to seek help when needed.
Show empathy: In your emotional toolbox, the tool you reach for first and most often should be empathy. That skill is vital in addressing every problem you might be confronted with, from a roommate conflict to a sexual assault. When you use empathy, students feel that you understand them. There’s no judgment, no minimizing, and they believe it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling.
Be careful of telling them not to feel bad, because they do feel bad. Toxic positivity doesn’t help. They don’t want or need you to fix their problems. You will be best served when you recognize you do not need to be an expert in these areas of mental health, but rather a generalist who feels empowered to get involved when needed and respond confidently when invited. You need to be confident in yourself and in your basic abilities to listen and be empathetic.
Practice self-care: Lastly, you need to take care of yourself. There’s a reason when flying that you’re told to put on your oxygen mask before helping others. It is not surprising that we are seeing unprecedented numbers of professionals leaving the field of higher education. They’re exhausted and burned out. The issues that students are dealing with may begin to weigh on you as you respond to student needs alongside the demands of your workday. At times, this can be overwhelming. The same work that can bring you satisfaction, engagement, and fulfillment can also take its toll.
Administrators can help prevent burnout and support their staff members. It’s vital that you find a good work-life balance. Self-care strategies can address a range of aspects of your life, including physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. Activities might include eating a balanced diet, practicing yoga, praying or engaging in religious traditions, spending time with friends, or talking with supportive friends and family. While some professionals may not have prioritized self-care, a good starting point is to begin with just one activity.
The role of higher education professionals is changing. As students struggle with depression, anxiety, and adjusting to college life, we need to be ready to respond. Listen, be empathetic, show concern, and be ready to connect students with the professionals who can help them. Understanding when and how to intervene and when to refer to others will enhance your role on campus and help ensure students get the support they need.