By Daniela McVicker*
How do you know if students are suffering from mental health problems and how to help them when they do?
Fortunately, we’re not living in the 1950s anymore. Now, if somebody has mental health issues they are not automatically stigmatized and avoided. At the same time, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. There are still a lot of difficulties that surround mental health.
For example, to be diagnosed as having a mental health problem can still create all sorts of difficulties for students. At the same time, to not correctly identify a problem can be just as problematic, as it will mean that they won’t get the help they get and might cause harm to themselves and others. So, what are we to do?
Even professionals struggle to identify problems correctly
A lot of people are misdiagnosed by people who have been trained for years to do so. They might be told they have the wrong illness or they might be told they have one when they’re just a bit strange. If professionals get something like this wrong, then imagine how easy it is for people who have no such training to make a mistake.
The best advice, therefore, is not to not try to analyze what problems a person has. Don’t even make a suggestion as it might then well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best advice we can give is to listen to what people have to say and, if you believe the situation warrants it, suggest that they speak to somebody with the proper training if you believe the situation is severe enough.
Having somebody listen to our problems can often already be incredibly helpful if we’re going through a rough patch. For that reason, if somebody comes in speaking of feeling blue, stressed, or in other ways making statements that have you worry about their mental condition practice these things:
You can ask them why they feel this way and then give them the time to respond. Ask for clarification if you don’t feel that you don’t understand something, but withhold judgment as much as possible, as that might worsen the situation.”
The best thing to do when they ask a question is to rephrase it and give it back at them. For example, if they say ‘what if I can’t hack it anymore?’ then you would ask ‘do you feel you can’t hack it anymore?’ Entire psychological sessions have been based on this simple technique and many people often already feel significantly better afterwards. When employing this technique, avoid leading questions.
If they do ask for you to diagnose what is going on with them and if they have a mental illness, then try to avoid doing so as much as possible. Try to avoid labels – particularly if they have serious implications. For example, don’t refer to schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or bipolar affective disorder.
What if they don’t come to you?
Sometimes you might suspect a student is suffering from mental problems but they aren’t seeking out your help. Perhaps you hear about their behavior or see it for yourself. Or perhaps you hear about it from somebody else.
The first step is to find out what others think. Talk to colleagues and ask them if they’ve noticed anything about the student. Here too you don’t want to put any words in their mouth. Don’t suggest the problem you believe the student has. Instead, listen to what they have to say. Perhaps ask them to pay a bit more attention to the student and then discuss it again afterward.
They might then offer you some valuable insights. Even if they don’t, it might well be worthwhile to seek these students out and have a conversation with them.
Some things to consider when this is the route you decide to take:
“Don’t single out one student. If you don’t normally speak to any students and then suddenly do speak to one (And only one) that student is likely to notice and they might not appreciate the attention, explains Sylvia Giltner, an HR specialist at TopWritersReview. “A much better strategy is to invite several students individually over a number of days, so as to avoid drawing attention to the person you’re worried about.”
Use questions, not statements. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask them what’s going on in their lives. Sometimes they might wish to talk about it. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they will appreciate your attention, sometimes they won’t. If you push too hard when they aren’t willing to talk with you, you might aggravate them.
Don’t be afraid to bring in a professional
If, after you’ve spoken to the student, you are still worried about what’s going on with them, don’t be afraid to bring in somebody else. Yes, it might be a false alarm. At the same time, there is a good chance it won’t be. After all, one in five people will suffer a mental health problem in a given year. More importantly, acting on a false alarm is less harmful than not acting when somebody does actually need help.
Do respect the student’s wishes. If you suggest that they get help and they vehemently deny that they do, then don’t force them into it unless you believe there is a real risk that they might harm themselves or others.
Instead, you can say you respect their wishes and offer to revisit the discussion in a few weeks’ time. Perhaps then, after they’ve had a bit of time to think about what’s going on, they will be more open to the idea.