When you became an educator did anyone tell you that you would also be responsible for monitoring your students’ mental health? Probably not. As the semesters pass, my experiences with this have increased. There are more and more students with anxiety and depression. In fact, I have had students have a panic attack during class. When that occurred, I left another student in charge of the class activity so that I could go be with the panicking student and assess their needs. Many times, in nursing education there are topics that will act as triggers to our students. We can’t possibly know what all those triggers are going to be. I will usually make a blanket statement before presentations that I know are difficult (i.e. talking about suicidality, death, trauma) so that students know it is safe to step out of class as long as they follow up with me later.
As nurse educators, how do we recognize that our students are having mental health problems? Well, beyond them coming to us saying they are having a problem, it is part of our responsibility to recognize subtle changes. Has the normally quiet student suddenly dropped off the grid, having absences and asking for extensions? Do you see grades dropping or absences in the student who has always pushed themselves to get good grades? Do you notice a mood change or poor ADL’s in a normally happy/well-groomed student? Our job is not to act as a counselor or mental health nurse, but to be able to notice when a student is slipping under the surface. We can reach out as a lifeline by simply sending that student an email saying we have noticed some changes and offering our help. We can reach out to our Title IX office and make a report if we suspect some kind of maltreatment is occurring to the student. We can invite the student to our office and then walk them to the on-campus health center. I cannot even count the number of times I have reached out only to have the student thank me for noticing.
Just as we have been taught to recognize our gut instincts when it comes to assessing our patients, the same is true when we notice something is out of character for one of our students. Even as it may feel uncomfortable to us to address these concerns imagine how it feels to the individual if no one notices. Sometimes the simple act of reaching out to them is exactly what they are missing in their lives outside of school.
I talk a lot to my students about learning how to use therapeutic communication. This is exactly the time we need to use silence and just listen to the student who agrees to meet to discuss what is going on in life. We are so quick to try to fix things by giving advice and filling silence. Notice what happens if we just sit with that student and listen. I have heard that some faculty will set up short appointments with each student at the beginning of the semester and use that time to get to know them. I admit that I have not done that. In all my courses I have about 120 students total. I do, however, constantly remind all my students that I am available to them at any time. Just today (a Sunday) I had two students reach out to me by text to ask questions. I took the time to answer their questions and ask how they were doing. It is little things like this that make the biggest impression on our students.
One good thing is that we have a counseling center on campus. In my previous blog, I mentioned that I have referred students to be seen at the counseling center. I have also had the director as a guest lecturer in my mental health course. This is a great way for the students to get to know one of the resources on campus and have a face to connect with that resource.
Mental health in the workplace
We need to also remember to be cognizant of changes we see in our peers. We live in a fast-paced world. The work environment is constantly changing, especially with Covid-19 social distancing procedures to keep everyone safe while we continue to teach our students. We are needing to adapt to these changes, while monitoring its effects on our students, but are we paying attention to the cues of our co-workers or even ourselves? Are we practicing Self-Stigma by hiding behind a mask of strength only to go home at night and collapse onto the couch due to the effort of not asking for help? Our students look to us as examples of how to act in the workplace and the world around us. If we are not practicing what we preach then how will we ever be able to decrease the stigma of mental illness? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask a co-worker if they are okay. We are all in this together.
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