Frequently college students seek emotional support and personal advice from faculty members with whom they have had supportive interactions. Faculty need to balance the idea of helping students with their more formal role as instructors, working to figure out appropriate boundaries.
In recent years this issue has taken on greater significance. More students come to college with mental health histories, campuses debate the use of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” and political and social tensions have risen across the country. Reasons like these make it important to reflect on the conversational strategies we use when students come to us for help unrelated to course content. Our goals need to include providing the best help for the student, taking care of our own work/life balance issues, and staying inside the scope of our roles and areas of expertise. Below are some strategies that can help accomplish those objectives.
Start with listening and supporting
Ask students what would be helpful. Are they simply looking for a place to vent, do they want help with solutions? Or are they needing someone to be involved? Keep in mind that sometimes all students need is someone to listen.
Don't act too quickly. Maybe start with, “I'm sad to hear that,” or “I'm sorry to hear you have been struggling.”
Don't assume that the student is without other support, that you'll be their only support, or that you must be their only support. Talk with the professionals on campus who deal with students daily and see if they are already aware of the student's concerns. It is a compliment when a student seeks out a professor for help. But the teacher's first obligation is gathering the information and making referrals to places where the student can find help.
If the student is emotionally upset, it may be hard to hear what you tell them. Even if the student appears to be listening, it's still a good idea to provide instructions/referrals in writing (keeping a copy) or ask the student to summarize your feedback before leaving.
Refer to campus resources
If the issue is straightforward, say difficulties with a roommate, it is helpful to have a standard set of information to share, such as a list of campus resources and their contact information. Include the counseling center, student disability services, student affairs, and financial aid offices.
For more serious concerns outside areas of expertise, develop questions that will help you decide what to do next before getting too far into details of the problem. Consider using closed-ended questions such as, “Do you have a support system?” “Do you have a plan for how to take care of yourself?” “On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready do you feel to get help with this?” “Do you need referrals?”
In cases that involve mental health or safety concerns, it is better to be safe than sorry. Refer the student to student affairs or the campus counseling center so that someone can follow up.
If it's a mental health issue that feels as though it requires immediate assistance, ask the student if you can call the counseling center from your office or, volunteer to walk with him or her to the counseling center.
Know the boundaries
Know the mandated reporting requirements on your campus for Title IX and for harm to self or to others.
Communicate the limits of confidentiality in honest, straightforward, compassionate, but non-apologetic ways. Use university-provided materials about mandated reporting. Students are often unaware of reporting requirements and will find it very helpful if you explain that you'd like to help, but there are more appropriate and more confidential resources on campus.
Sometimes it's preferable not knowing all the details of a student's problem. Too much information (positive or negative) can unintentionally influence subsequent responses to the student and his or her work.
Students tend to be often unaware of privacy laws, so it might be appropriate to explain that faculty members should not know certain personal details about students' lives. Only student disability services or the campus counseling center have the right to know private medical information.
What if you discover information about a student through your role as a “friend” on social media? Consult the university's rules for mandated reporting to learn the appropriate response.
How much should a teacher self-disclose when speaking with students about their concerns? Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, it helps to keep in mind your role as an instructor. Sharing information about your graduate school application process or job interviews is more likely appropriate than disclosing your personal emotional struggles.
If you're worrying that the conversation is blurring into the realm of personal counseling, remember that academic or career advice usually involves more task-oriented discussions and direct advice-giving while emotional counseling entails more listening, interpreting, and processing. When you're unsure how to proceed, it is always a good idea to consult campus offices that regularly deal with student issues and problems. Faculty are a valuable resource for students. Sometimes we are the first to know when a student is struggling with personal issues. Thinking through these conversations before they occur can make them go more smoothly, and most importantly, help the student connect with appropriate resources as seamlessly as possible.
Deanna Barthlow-Potkanowicz (firstname.lastname@example.org), PhD, is an assistant professor at Bluffton University, Bluffton, OH.