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Student Mental Health: Effective Classroom Intervention

Students under pressure

  • Center for collegiate mental health (2014): data shows steadily increasing utilization of counseling services on college campuses
  • Additional increases in numbers of students taking psychiatric medication, being hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, purposefully self-harming and making suicide attempts
  • Over 30 percent of students who seek counseling services for mental health issues report having seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives

What kinds of problems do students experience?

  • Relationship problems (conflicts, violence)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Adjustment problems
  • Post traumatic/acute stress
  • Academic distress
  • Identity development
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief

Emotions can be intense

Students experience a range of feelings. Emotions (positive & negative) are normal. Emotions do not constitute mental health problems, unless they become unmanageable and impede functioning.

You do not need to be a mental health professional to talk about emotions.

  • Sadness
  • Helplessness
  • Fear
  • Grief
  • Worry
  • Self-consciousness

Given the mental health needs of the college student population, two things are clear…

  • Mental health problems won’t stay out of your classrooms.
  • Students’ emotions will be part of your everyday lives as faculty members.
  • Community-wide awareness, support and intervention is an absolute necessity.

How will you (typically) see mental health needs manifest in your classrooms?

  • Disruptive students
  • Highly anxious students
  • Students suspected of substance abuse
  • Students requesting leniency for psychiatric or emotional reasons
  • Severe distress/in crisis

Disruptive students any behavior that interferes with instruction

DO DON'T
  • Set and communicate expectations about appropriate classroom conduct orally and in your syllabus
  • Provide the class (rather than the individual student) with a word of caution/allow an opportunity for the behavior to stop
  • Exercise authority with compassion, respect and self-restraint
  • Talk to the student after class
  • Communicate kindly the consequences for continued disruption
  • Ask the student to leave if they continue to disrupt instruction and they have been provided with a warning.
  • Ridicule the student and his/her behavior
  • Don’t discipline a student in front of the class, unless absolutely necessary
  • Get into an argument with the student
  • Become hostile or punitive
  • Press for explanations for their behavior
  • Assume that you can permanently remove a student without a formal review
**Adapted from Kansas State University Counseling Services' “Common Problems that Students May Present When Talking with an Advisor/Faculty”

The special case of students with autism spectrum and other developmental disorders

  • Supporting success of students with autism spectrum disorders is a priority of Iona College
  • Specialized resource: caps program
  • Social skills deficits
  • Communication difficulties
DO DON'T
  • Set and communicate clear expectations for classroom behavior orally and in writing
  • Be consistent with rules regarding classroom behavior
  • Talk to the student after class
  • Utilize campus resources and make appropriate referrals (CAP, Rudin Center, Student Success, Counseling Center)
  • Necessarily approach disruption as a disciplinary issue. Communication issues and/or social skills deficits may play a role.
  • Avoid addressing the disruption with the student, approach them with a kind curiosity and make your expectations clear
  • Single out the student in front of their classmates

Anxious Students

What it looks like

  • Academic demands trigger anxiety for many students
  • Concerns about performance, evaluation, success
  • Anxious students may describe: impaired concentration, ruminating thoughts, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate
  • Perfectionistic thinking, difficulty completing and submitting assignments
DO DON'T
  • Remain calm
  • Relieve pressure by talking about the student’s feelings & concerns
  • Normalize academic anxiety
  • Provide a quiet, restful space
  • Offer reassurance along with clear expectations
  • Help student break assignments down into small, manageable parts
  • Tell the student they have nothing to worry about – this is invalidating and also false
  • Adjust your expectations
  • Act as if this is an emergency – anxiety is not a crisis and behaving as such will intensify the symptoms

Students Suspected of Substance Abuse

What it looks like

  • Intoxication in the classroom and/or appearing “hung over”
  • Detectable cannabis odor
  • Changes in behavior (i.e.: academic performance,  variability  in mood/demeanor, fatigue/hyperactivity, sleeping in class)
  • Changes in appearance (i.e.: weight, hygiene, clothing)
  • Interpersonal problems (i.e.: as expressed by the student or observed with peers in the classroom)
DO DON'T
  • Talk privately with the student after class
  • Convey empathy and compassion, communicate a non-judgmental attitude
  • Address the issue of intoxication in class
  • Utilize campus resources/make referrals (AOD Services, Counseling Center)
  • Call Safety & Security and 911 in case of an immediate medical emergency (alcohol poisoning, drug overdose)
  • Ignore or avoid addressing students who attend class under the influence
  • Ignore your own concern that a student may be struggling with a substance problem
  • Make assumptions about the nature of a student’s substance use. Create an open dialogue and convey non-judgmental concern.
  • Discuss substance-related concerns publicly. Shame related to substance abuse can create a barrier to getting help.

Students Requesting Leniency

What it looks like

  • Students may come to you asking for leniency with grades and/or due dates because of emotional or psychological difficulties
  • Some emotional problems, especially traumatic events, can suddenly change a student’s ability to function
  • Sometimes changes are noticeable – you may observe changes in mood, affect, presentation, level of engagement, quality of work product
  • Even when you have not noticed any changes, the request may be legitimate
  • Some students may repeatedly ask for leniency – be aware of patterns of avoidance
DO DON'T
  • Respond to the request in a timely fashion
  • Refer the student to academic advising
  • Refer the student to the Rudin Center
  • Suggest a visit to the Counseling Center
  • Listen to the request carefully and consider leniency, if warranted
  • If there is a repetitive pattern, refer to Student Success
  • Tell the student to “grow up and deal with it”
  • Overreact and consider this an emergency if it is not. Emergency = imminent threat of harm to self or other
  • Accuse the student of lying
  • If you question the validity of the student’s claims, ask the student if you may speak to the on-campus service providers you are referring to
  • Avoid replying to emails or messages

Distressed / In Crisis

What it looks like

  • Feelings of sadness, loneliness and hopelessness, periods of low motivation are a normal part of life occurring in response to stressors
  • They can become unmanageable and overwhelming – this is depression
  • Signs & Symptoms – tearfulness, sadness or notable lack of emotion, diminished performance, impaired concentration, decreased class attendance, significant weight loss/gain, disrupted sleep, deteriorated hygiene, irritability
  • High risk indicators of suicidality – hopelessness, helplessness, isolation, feelings of guilt & worthlessness, current suicidal ideation or plan

The reality of suicidal thoughts and attempts

  • By 2013, the suicide rate in the U.S. stood at 12.6 deaths per 100K (this is the most recent year CDC stats are available)
  • Adolescents and young adults aged 15-24 had a suicide rate of 10.9 per 100K, as compared with 19.1 for ages 45-64 (the highest rate for 2013)
  • 30 percent of students have thought at one point about suicide
  • 10 percent have thought about suicide seriously
  • 5 or 6 per have had a plan
  • 0.5-1% have made an attempt
DO DON'T
  • Let the student know you have noticed they are struggling
  • Encourage them to disclose their feelings to you
  • Offer options to address the symptoms (Counseling Center)
  • Take the student seriously – 80 percent of people who attempt suicide give warning
  • Be direct. Ask students if they are thinking about suicide, if they have a plan, and if they have access to the method
  • Know your limitations
  • If student discloses suicidal thoughts – call Counseling Center from your office with student or walk student to Counseling Center
  • Outside Counseling Center hours – call Safety & Security
  • Minimize it
  • Offer problem solvers
  • Blame or chastise the student
  • Be afraid of asking directly about suicidal thoughts. You will not “plant” this idea in their minds by asking.
  • Attempt to handle this problem yourself
  • Leave the student alone or dismiss them from your office if they disclose suicidal thoughts or plans

The Counseling Center Can Help

Making Effective Referrals to the Counseling Center

  • Know when a student needs an immediate evaluation (any concerns about personal/interpersonal safety)
  • Give the student specific, observable, descriptive reasons for the referral
  • Discuss your role as a caring professional
  • Present counseling as a positive experience that can enhance coping skills 
  • We are trained mental health professionals
  • We treat a full range of problems
  • We can teach coping and problem-solving skills
  • We can help students get involved
  • We can teach stress reduction and anger management
  • We can be advocates in difficult times
  • We maintain privacy and confidentiality
  • We are experienced with a college student population
  • We can help you talk to students about getting counseling
  • We can consult with you about mental health concerns among students 

The Counseling Center

Located in Spellman Hall, 2nd Floor
Phone: (914) 633-2038
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.