The University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) called off its classes on Tuesday. After two suicides in the past month, school officials decided to observe a Wellness Day. The chancellor released this advice, "I encourage every student to use this time to rest and to check in with each other during that day. Reach out to a friend, a classmate, or colleague and ask them, 'Honestly, how are you doing?'”
As a result, a good friend of mine emailed to ask me what I thought about the pressures college students are under these days and the actions of college officials. He remembers college well but he has been away for decades.
My response was simple, “I have approximately 75 students per semester in my classes. At any point in time, it is not unreasonable that a couple of those students could be under a lot of stress and that, perhaps, one of those students will just not be able to deal with that pressure. If so, I hope I am aware enough to notice and take action. Ultimately, 74 of those students will be able to deal with everything—life, school, family, love life, whatever. But, one might not. It’s not all 75 that worry me. It’s that one student that I want to notice. I don’t want to wait until ‘Wellness Day’ to be aware of a student who is really struggling. I want to pay attention every day. When it comes to suicide prevention, my rule is ’74 out of 75 is not good enough.’”
As college teachers, if anyone is going to notice a student in distress, it should be us. That sentence is one we should tell ourselves every day.
This past August, I wrote the following note to all of my fellow faculty here at the Robins School of Business. If you want to do something to address the threat of student suicide, you might write a note like this to your colleagues. It is a million times better to be aware before a problem erupts than have regrets afterwards. Hearing it from you might make it more a priority for other members of your faculty.
To: B-school Faculty and Staff
I am on sabbatical this semester and one of my main goals is to be quiet and invisible so I can finish several projects (the 15th edition of my textbook, for one). Nevertheless, you should have gotten an email today from the Vice President of Student Development about student mental health and this is one of the few things that I think is so important that I have decided to break my silence.
We all have dozens of students in our classes, and we interact with them for at least 150 minutes each week. Under the best of circumstances, college can be a difficult transitional time for them. With Covid, this is hardly the best of times.
From my 50 years of experience in the classroom, most of them deal with everything wonderfully well. Almost invariably, a few of them struggle.
I think virtually everyone knows that I put a lot of pressure on my students. I think I hold the record for most tears in one office. Consequently, I pay very close attention to my students to see if there are behavioral changes throughout the semester: students who look like they have stopped sleeping or eating, students who go from always prepared to always unprepared, students who stop attending, students who seem to withdraw within themselves, students who say things that just don't make sense.
I usually talk with the students first to see what might be happening but if I continue to have any reservations, I quickly contact one of the deans of students or I complete the university’s formal link to alert officials as to my concerns. I never hesitate to get the appointed people involved.
I have found without exception that those folks are ready and willing to help. They will not question you or doubt you.
I probably hold the record for most contacts of the student deans over the years (I can be a mean guy as a lot of students will tell you and that leads to trauma) and I have never never never once regretted contacting them. The student deans and the mental health folks will take you seriously.
I could make a list of the things I want to avoid but you already know some of the bad things that can happen to students. I never want to look back and ask myself, "Why didn't I see that coming? What did I miss?"