Agony aunt

May 14, 1999

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.

Colin Lago

Sheffield University Counselling Service

A) I always encourage our academic colleagues to consult either the university counselling or health services - off the record if necessary as confidentiality is crucial - so that we can support tutors facing such difficulties.

Of course, we can offer to see the student but sometimes the student is reluctant to go beyond their tutor and seek help elsewhere. This can present academics with an enormous amount of responsibility and anxiety, especially if the student's problem is acute.

The tutor can feel under-qualified to help and it can feel very lonely. The tutor has a responsibility to monitor a student's academic progress so it is perfectly legitimate to approach a student and simply ask in a polite way if everything is OK. Maybe they have failed to submit an essay or attend a lecture and this can be a starting point. The manner in which the approach is made is very important. Done sensitively, a listener can make an enormous difference.

Consult as widely as you can, around your department and outside, because, of course, this will not be the first time such a problem has arisen and seeking advice from a colleague who has encountered something similar can help. If the problem is really acute, and say the student is suicidal, it is vital to seek the help of the university health service or the student's own doctor.

Many universities have student-run organisations to deal with student problems and these can provide invaluable sources of help for students who may be anxious about the university authorities becoming involved.

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