Ears - they're your best asset

September 30, 2005

What should you do when students come to you with personal issues? Listen, advise and above all take them seriously, cautions Harriet Swain, but don't try to solve all of their problems

A student agonising over a mathematical problem? You'll need five minutes and a piece of chalk to solve it. A philosophical difficulty? You can forget the chalk. But a student's personal problem? Hmm. You're a bit busy at the moment. Could it possibly wait?

No, it probably can't. Worries can get blown out of perspective the longer they are left and personal problems can impact on academic work, warns Ann McPherson, a GP and author of a number of books giving health advice to young people.

She says you first need to sort out what the main issue is. If it is financial, there may well be support available. If it is family problems, the student may need counselling. Often, time management is at the root of the problem. Encourage students to keep diaries of how they have spent their time and stress the importance of taking breaks and regular exercise.

"Sometimes you just need to be a listening ear and give commonsense advice," says McPherson. "Realise that people are often away from home and might need someone they can confide in."

Sian Davies, students with disabilities officer for the National Union of Students who had a number of personal problems herself at university, says listening is key. "Let students talk about the issues," she says.

She also stresses the importance of taking them seriously. It often requires great courage to talk about personal difficulties and a student's future can be affected if he or she is then ridiculed, she warns. While splitting up with a boyfriend or having a problem with housing may seem to you to be just a routine part of teenage life, it is a much bigger deal to the person experiencing these situations.

Veronica King, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, says that if listening isn't your thing, you should make sure there is someone else in the department who can fulfil this role.

You must be aware of what services are available within the university, student union and local community so that you can pass on that information to students immediately. If you do refer a student to a particular service, it is important to check that it has provided the help needed. This is especially important if the problem has taken courage to discuss. "Just keep an eye on it and make it clear that he or she can come back to you if need be," King says.

Alan Percy, deputy head of Oxford University counselling service, says that it is important to realise that anxieties are normal for young people in the transition to university life and that many problems arise from people losing their sense of perspective. "Often students come along and say they don't understand things, they don't know things," he says. "Try to get them to understand that not knowing things is part of the process of education. It's about trying to normalise that."

McPherson warns that you should always be on the lookout for signs that a student's problems are really serious. If they withdraw from social events, do not eat properly or if there is a risk that they are harming themselves, they need professional help.

Nicky Stanley, professor of social work at the University of Central Lancashire, says it is important for everyone to recognise the signs and to be familiar with their institution's procedures if problems are spotted.

Percy says that it can be difficult to persuade students to approach a counsellor or GP and that you need to explain that it is common to seek help, that the support offered is confidential and that, by resisting it, they may miss out on real solutions. "Encourage them to confront why they won't get this help," he says.

While you need to keep discussions with students confidential, there are times - as when you fear that students could be a danger to themselves or others - when this confidentiality must be broken and you need to know quickly whom to approach in such circumstances. Percy says you should not ignore your instincts if you feel a student's behaviour is cause for concern.

But he warns against getting too involved and says it is important not to offer support that you cannot provide. If you give a student your home number and tell him or her to ring at any time, you cannot then complain if you get a call in the middle of the night.

Stanley says you have to know the boundaries of your role. "It is a mistake for academic members of staff, unless they are particularly experienced or confident, to feel that they have to solve all students' problems for them," she says. She recommends discussing cases, anonymously if necessary, with colleagues to get advice on how to deal with them.

Davies says she was helped enormously by one tutor who told her his door was always open, assured her that he would talk to people on her behalf and even helped in reassuring her parents. But she acknowledges that academics also have to protect themselves, especially if a student is expressing suicidal thoughts. "They need to make sure they have some support," she says.

Percy advises consulting the university counselling service if you feel out of your depth. "Often, when a student presents in a panicky way, people pick up on the panic and feel panicked themselves," he says. The solution is to talk it through with others.

Further information
Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide , edited by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope, Oxford University Press, 1995
Fresher Pressure, How to Survive as a Student , by Aidan McFarlane and Ann McPherson, Oxford University Press, 1994
Students' Mental Health Needs: Problems and Responses , edited by Nicky Stanley and Jill Manthorpe, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002

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Don't be afraid to ask for advice from colleagues and university counsellors

Learn the signs that indicate a student's problem is serious and that they need professional help

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