Q) I am supervising a student whom I strongly suspect is suffering from mental health problems. I have no experience of this and want to know what is the best way to help her.
Chair of Hull University student progress committee
A) Knowing the boundaries of personal supervision is extremely important. While you may want to be approachable and a friendly supervisor, this is not the same as being a friend and offering to take them on holiday with you.
Make sure students know when you are available and where your responsibilities lie. It is important from the outset that students know the sources of help available to them through the counselling and other university services. This can be done through induction literature as prevention is always preferable.
Talk, yourself, to the counselling service for advice on how to tackle the particular difficulty, be it depression or whatever, and refer the student, if appropriate. But do not then throw away the file. The student is your responsibility too.
Training for staff varies enormously and it is often assumed that all student problems are to do with adolescence but of course they are not, particularly with the number of mature students now at university.
Some research we did recently for the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that more than a third of personal tutors have recently dealt with student mental health problems and some felt unable to deal with these, particularly the life-threatening ones.
Academics do feel responsible when problems bubble up. We have found it particularly useful for academic and counselling staff to meet to discuss the issues. Do not forget to defend your university counselling service whenever there is the threat of cuts. Student problems are not going away.
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