I cannot tell you how many conversations with students I have had over the last two years that were about mental health. Yes, we educators had noticed the uptick in stress, anxiety, and depression well before the pandemic threw us all for a loop. But now, it seems to be a part of every conversation.

Even though I am not a medical expert, counselor, or therapist (and I let my students know that!), I have found myself in situations where I feel the need to recommend that they see someone whose job it is to help with mental health issues.

Here are just a few recent examples of the issues I have witnessed and discussed with my students:

  • Student doesn’t turn in assignments for two weeks. She is having issues with depression and can’t get herself to do her work.
  • Student has extreme difficulty focusing in class and constantly checks his email and phone for messages repeatedly despite being asked to pay attention to the lecture. He confesses that he has low periods during the semester and just works harder when he feels better to make up for lost ground.
  • Student has trouble staying on top of her work. She shares that she has been going through a difficult time and just told her parents about it but had kept it inside for weeks.

I could easily fill this screen with stories like that just from this semester. I ask my students, “Are you getting help with this? Have you talked with someone?” Some are. Some aren’t. Some are reaching out to family, and only a few are seeking professional medical help, which my university offers through the student health center.

Even more tell me they are just going to “deal with it. It is no big deal.” These are the ones I worry about the most because they don’t or won’t get help. Or they don’t think that what is going on is having a negative effect on them.

Here are a few behaviors that I have witnessed, especially when it sustained or regular in occurrence, that usually points to something else going on:

  • Missing classes. This is the first sign that something is wrong.
  • Forgetting to turn in assignments. A missed assignment once isn’t a deal breaker, at least not in my class, but several in a row are often a message that things aren’t going well.
  • Difficulty focusing in class. Not paying attention because their mind is wandering, or they are on their phones point to an issue that needs to be addressed.
  • Severe loss of motivation or enthusiasm. Not all students will love all their classes, but a downturn in motivation or excitement about learning could signal something deeper.
  • Inconsistency in quality of work. Periods of good grades and poor grades all within the same course and semester may signal more than just a challenging assignment.

While I am often able to intervene and suggest that they get some help with diagnosing the issues that are underlying the behaviors, I could use some reinforcement through the support that you can give.

Here is what I suggest you can do to help them get the help they need. I have created the acronym TOP to help you remember that their mental health is a TOP priority.

T is for Talking. Sounds simple, but regular check-ins keep the conversations flowing. Ask them about what they are doing and how they are doing. The more you know about how things are going–or not–the less surprised you will be if things get tough for your student. If your student doesn’t want to burden you with their academic issues, encourage them to talk to an advisor, peer coach, or professor.

O is for Openness and honesty.  I told my son when he started college that the only thing I asked is for him to tell me the truth and I would not get mad. If he failed a test or was about to fail a class, he needed to let me know as soon as possible and that we would work out a plan, but don’t wait until it is too late. No judgment, no anger. I wanted him to feel comfortable telling me whatever issue he was having. And when he came to me to drop a class in his first semester, I talked to him just as I would one of my students: I provided clear guidance on what he needed to do and then gave him the space to take care of it. I also reminded him that it was normal to struggle in a class.

P is for Professional services.  This is the part that may be hard for some parents, but I cannot tell you how many students I have talked with who were in need of professional medical services and they 1) didn’t know where to start, 2) thought they could handle whatever issue they had on their own, or 3) assumed they couldn’t afford the services. Please, please normalize physical and mental health check-ups and treatment. Most of my students assume they can manage issues such as ADHD with no medication or behavioral intervention even when shown that they are not managing their work well. Other students don’t realize they have built-in professional health services on their campus. I tell students that they go to the dentist to check their teeth; they should go to a doctor to check their mental health as well.

I hope that your student never has to deal with emotional or mental health issues while in college; however, I know that if they do, they can reach out to people on campus for assistance. What I would love to hear more from them is that they are getting positive, supportive messages at home as well that reinforces the support they are getting away from home.

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