The recent closure of Leeds Trinity University’s campus because of the coronavirus has meant that we’re having to rethink our approaches to supporting the mental health and well-being of our students. Thankfully, I have been developing training alongside frequent discussions with academics when issues arise, so our general approach (albeit adapted) can still help.
The most important starting point is identifying at-risk students. There are a number of factors that can help us to know who these students are, but these factors have to be adapted when working remotely.
For example, can you tell who has not registered for online lectures and therefore who has stopped engaging? Who has been in touch with concerns about missing deadlines or has applied for mitigating circumstances? If you don’t have a learning management system that does this, I would suggest that academics develop their own system that tracks this information or, better yet, that the university establish a way to monitor how students are engaging with online lectures.
It’s essential to know which students you have already had conversations with about their mental health. Likewise, identify the care-leavers or students who are estranged from their families or who are unable to return home because of travel issues. I would suggest letting your student support team (including any mental health or well-being services) know about these students so that any support being offered can be extended to them. Perhaps try to arrange more regular contact with them if you can.
It is then important to think about boundaries. You need to assess if the risk you have identified is academic, and therefore suitable for you to get in touch about. Or it could be the case that you have a relationship with the student already that makes it appropriate for you to check in with them.
We talk to our staff about ensuring that there are clear boundaries, such as not giving out personal contact information and seeing students only at certain set times during the day and dividing that time in an equitable way that doesn’t take over academic work. Academics need to think about how they are going to maintain these boundaries when working remotely. One way would be to set certain hours for pastoral support. You should also take into consideration how you will connect with students. Will you use email, Skype, Teams, Zoom or a phone?
Universities need to make clear what they can offer. Make sure academics and staff are aware of the mental health and well-being support available and of any changes that might have been made to that service in response to the emergency circumstances. For example, If someone is concerned that a student may be in danger of an escalating risk because of their mental health, whom do they speak to within your organisation for support? Where do they direct students?
Communicate clearly what has been agreed in terms of the impact on exams, assignments, placements and/or mitigating circumstances during this time. For academics, make sure you know how to signpost people to this information when these questions arise, which they inevitably will.
Finally, encourage staff and lecturers to speak to someone for a debrief after dealing with an at-risk student. Make sure they know who to contact within the university’s student support services for a reassuring chat or email after they’ve made contact with students.
Outside these circumstances, staff and academics should be having regular meetings for emotional support. Remember that if you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s going to be very hard to look after someone else. We’re all in a very new and strange time, so it’s OK to not always have the right answer and to ask colleagues for support.
Toby Chelms is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and a Student Mental Health and Wellbeing manager at Leeds Trinity University. This blog was first published by Times Higher Education on 23 March 2020.
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