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Guidance for faculty, staff, and TAs supporting student mental health

Start of Fall Semester, 2021

At Cornell, we all have a role to play in building a caring, inclusive community of students, faculty, and staff that takes seriously its responsibility to look out for one another. Faculty, staff, and TAs are not expected to be mental health professionals, but can make a significant difference in supporting students’ well-being.

What faculty, staff, and TAs can say to students

Faculty, staff, and TAs can support the health and well-being of students by acknowledging the reality that the start of the semester can be a stressful time, especially this year with the ongoing COVID pandemic, and by being responsive to students’ needs. Many students are coming to or returning to campus for the first time after remote study and encountering a somewhat different campus experience than hoped for due to COVID public health safety measures. Below are things you can say to help provide students with a sense of hope in the face of these challenges.

Let students know you care:

There are many ways you can support students’ well-being. Some examples include:

  • Acknowledging the additional challenges we've all experienced this past year and a half:
    • “Before we get started I just want to pause and acknowledge that this is a challenging time for all of us.”
    • “Between your coursework, the pandemic, racial violence, and xenophobia, some of you may be feeling a lot of stress.” 
  • Letting them know you care about their mental health and well-being and that you want them to practice self-care:
    • “It’s especially important now to do the things that you find helpful to manage your stress.”
    • “Do what works for you. Talking with friends or family. Exercising. Challenging negative self-talk. Spending time in nature. And even though it’s hard sometimes not to buy into the college culture of sleep deprivation as a badge of honor , try to get enough sleep.”
  • Reiterating that asking for help is important, and that many students regularly utilize academic, career, wellness, and mental health-related support services:
    • “Be sure to ask for help if you need it. That could be help from one of your professors or TAs, from a friend, or from a counselor.”
    • “Asking for help is a sign of strength and is a smart thing to do.”
  • Reminding them that you are a source of support for them, too:
    • “Please do not hesitate to let me know if you need to talk with me.”
      “I hold office hours and would be glad to meet with you if you are struggling.”
  • For faculty, be flexible when you can and remind them about the option of asking for an extension on an assignment deadline and the option of withdrawing from a class:
    • “If you need an extension on an assignment, talk with me or your other professors about what might be possible.”
    • “And remember if you’re really struggling with your grade, you can withdraw from a course” 

Causes and signs of distress among students

Stress is an automatic response to demands, pressures, and/or competing priorities. Not all stress is bad. Some stress can motivate students and help them focus on achieving their goals. But too much stress, or stress carried too long, can activate a student’s “fight or flight” response, which, if left unchecked, can decrease their ability to function. Importantly, student responses to stress vary.

Causes of distress

In general, distress occurs when the amount of stress exceeds the resources (both internal and external) one has to handle it. Most distress comes from the actual or perceived loss of important mental health elements (e.g., connection, status, health, meaning, control, identity). 

A student’s level of internal and external resources for coping varies widely based on personality, mindset, level of privilege and oppression, and cultural factors. For one student, a failing paper grade may be brushed off, while for another, a failing paper grade may be experienced as threatening their sense of self-worth, compromising access to financial aid, or bringing shame/embarrassment on their family.

Signs of distress

How distress appears on the surface can vary greatly between people. In particular, during hybrid instruction when you may be interacting in-person and/or virtually with students, it can be additionally challenging to recognize signs of distress. You may notice one or more signs and decide that something is clearly wrong. Or you may just have a “gut feeling” that something’s amiss. Either way, you should take these signs – and your intuition – seriously.

The following indicators can be important signs of distress, particularly when they interfere with a student’s personal, social and/or academic functioning:

Academic

  • Repeated absences 
  • Decline in quality of work or classroom performance
  • Multiple requests for extensions on papers and other assignments or asking for incompletes
  • Essays or creative work that include disturbing content and/or themes of despair, hopelessness, suicide, violence, death, or aggression

Physical

  • Marked changes in physical appearance or hygiene
  • Repeatedly appearing sick, excessively fatigued, hungover or otherwise under the influence
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns
  • Obvious change in mental state 
  • Other behavior that doesn’t seem to match the context / setting  

Inter / Intrapersonal

  • Direct comments about distress, feelings of overwhelm, family problems, etc. 
  • Expressions of unrelenting sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, or shame
  • Drastic change in interactions with others, acting out of character
  • Expressions of concern by peers
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Signs of being isolated, rejected, or alienated by peers 
  • Frequent conflicts with others 
  • Implied or direct threats of harm to self/others
  • Self-injurious, destructive, or reckless behavior

Your own response

In any given situation, there are likely several effective ways to respond, such as meeting with the student one-on-one (in-person or virtually), offering resources, and/or consulting with a campus resource. 

Assisting a student who is showing signs of distress can be stressful and often brings up a range of emotions such as anxiety, frustration, or fear. It is important to take a moment to openly acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling to help distinguish your own natural reactions from what you are observing in the student. You can then use your behavioral observations to discern the level of distress to help guide your response options. See below for resources for faculty and staff to help you reduce your own stress.

Noticing distress level and knowing how to respond

The following describes how to recognize and respond to three different levels of distress: 

1)    Concern
2)    Urgent
3)    Emergency

Your response should vary according to the level of a student’s distress.

For more information, consider viewing Notice and Respond: Assisting Students in Distress (Spring 2021 edition), a free 30-minute online Canvas course designed for Cornell staff and faculty. 

Concern

Urgent

  • Signs: Expressions of hopelessness or desperation; talk of suicide; being out-of-touch with reality.
  • Response Options: 
    • Get immediate assistance from Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155 during business hours to consult with a CAPS counselor about how to help a student in distress. After hours your call will be answered by a licensed therapist from Cornell Health’s on-call provider, ProtoCall. 
    • An alternative 24/7 resource is the Ithaca Crisisline at 1-800-273-8255.
    • These resources can give you advice and/or help in a situation that has escalated and requires mobilization of other resources. 
    • Remember, you don’t have to go at this alone and you can always consult with others when needed. 

A note about talk of suicide: If a student shares with you that they have been thinking about suicide or feeling hopeless, reflect back what you’ve heard, (e.g., “So, you are feeling that things are hopeless…”). Let the student know you’re glad they told you, that you want to help, and that things can get better. It’s okay to tell the student that you want to enlist the assistance of a professional resource in order to help them. For example, you can call Cornell Health (607-255-5155) with the student present so you can both consult with a mental health professional. Research shows that asking someone directly about suicide does not increase the likelihood that they will act on these thoughts. In fact, asking about suicidal intent lowers anxiety, opens up communication, and reduces the risk of an impulsive act.

It can be unnerving to hear someone say they are having thoughts of suicide. Take a deep breath and remember that suicidal thoughts, like all thoughts, are temporary, and that addressing those thoughts with the student does not increase the risk that they will act on them. Suicidal thinking can be treated.

Emergency

  • Signs: Immediate threat of harm to self or others.
  • Response Options: Get immediate assistance from police by calling 911 or notify the Cornell Police 24/7 at 607-255-1111. Your safety, and that of our students and community, is our top priority. 

A note about law enforcement and other emergency personnel and students who identify as Black, Indigenous, and students of color (BIPOC) and/or as neurodiverse (e.g., perhaps on the autism spectrum): Keep in mind how our own implicit biases shape how we interpret the meaning or severity of others’ behavior and the differential experiences of BIPOC and neurodiverse individuals with law enforcement/ emergency personnel due to systemic racism and other bias. Seek out other alternatives if it is not an emergency.

Consultation and support resources to share with students

IN AN EMERGENCY CALL 911 OR THE CORNELL POLICE AT 607-255-1111

Crisis and Suicide Prevention Hotlines, Text and Chat Services

Taking care of yourself: For faculty and staff

It is crucial to take care of yourself in order to effectively support students’ mental health and well-being. There are services and resources at Cornell designed specifically to bolster faculty and staff mental health and well-being. It you are feeling fatigued, burned out, or are struggling emotionally, please consider utilizing the following resources:


The content on this web page was adapted with permission from Stanford University’s "Red Folder" and Jack.org's "Be There" resources.