Rights of Educators and Students with Mental Illness

I work at a post-secondary school for acting students. Inevitably I meet and work with students that might struggle with a variety of emotional, mental or physical struggles. I need help understanding what our individual rights are to help both the student and the school. While it may be an uncomfortable conversation, is it legal for me to ask openly if a student has been diagnosed with bipolar, depression, eating disorders, etc.?

I want to make sure they are successful in my program but if I don’t know there is an issue, I can’t help them. OR, the opposite, I know there is a problem but no one has ever helped them identify it and helped them get assistance. Can I just ask them or is it infringing on some rights I am not aware of?

I realize you aren’t professionals but maybe you can help point me to getting ‘official’ answers. Thank you so much for whatever you can provide.

This is a fairly loaded question but I will answer it as best as I can and provide you with some basic guidelines. First of all if you suspect that one of your students has a mental health issue a good place to start would be to consult with the student’s academic advisor if they have one. If that option is not available it would be wise to consult with the institutions counselling center. Nowadays many educational institutions have mental health counsellors on campus. If for some reason you are unable to access any of these resources I would suggest that you discuss the issue with your superior. The reason I am suggesting these courses of action is because you could become liable for all sorts of things if you are to “ask a student directly if they have a mental health disorder”. There are issues of privacy and confidentiality that need to be taken into consideration and you do not want to infringe upon the rights of the student. Additionally there can be human rights issues and government rules and regulations that are in place that you are not aware of. Your college/university should have policies in place so I would check into that. This way you are protecting yourself from being legally liable from any wrong doing that could occur and this will also protect the student’s rights.

Some other things that would be useful are to know the following:

Know the signals of distress: (Office of Student Life Studies, 2000)

  • Excessive procrastination
  • Decrease in the quality of work
  • Too frequent office visits (dependency)
  • Listlessness, sleeping in class
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene
  • Impaired speech or disjointed thoughts
  • Threats regarding self or others
  • Marked changes in behavior

Advisers at the NACADA Region 6 conference in Sioux Falls,SD ( April 21, 2005 ) compiled the following additional warning signs:

  • Flat affect (failure to show emotions)
  • Under-responding to academic notice
  • Absence from class
  • Too much or too little time spent in the residence hall
  • Crying
  • Incongruous affect (smiling while crying)
  • Lack of follow-through
  • Unable to describe own emotions

So when seeing these warning signs what can educators and academic advisers do?

Even though most educators and academic advisers are not professional counselors, they are in positions to notice that a student may be experiencing stress, or something more challenging. Educators and advisers should not attempt to provide therapy to students but should use communication and observation skills to refer to those who can assist students. Educators and advisers should be well acquainted with the campus mental health counselors (or, if services are community based, know how to refer). While respecting student privacy, advisers can communicate with faculty members about their concerns. General comments regarding a student’s sudden change in motivation, for example, can be shared although specific information about grades cannot be shared due to FERPA privacy guidelines. Colleges and universities should have information, such as counseling center location and hours, available to students 24/7 on the institution’s website. For example the University of Texas at Austin has a website that provides a good example: http://www.utexas.edu/student/cmhc/howuse.html .

*Clear policies and procedures are absolutely vital.

Kitzrow (2003) suggests that all campus personnel take advantage of faculty and staff development opportunities and seek information about working with students who have mental health conditions and/or disabilities. Recognizing and knowing the protocol about referring students in trouble is one of the very best things an educator or adviser can do to help a student. If a student directly seeks you out and acknowledges that they are having difficulty with a mental health issue it would be best to direct them to the institutions counseling center. If the student has a problem with accessing the schools counseling center another option is to encourage them to seek help at a “community mental health clinic”. Other than that there really isn’t much else educators can do as it is up to the student to access these types of resources. With regards to knowing that the student is having difficulty you could approach them and say something like, “I am a little concerned about you as you seem to be struggling with something. Is there anything I can do to help?” The student will likely react in one of two ways. They will either be open to suggestions from you to obtain some help or they will be resistant and may even tell you to “mind your own business”. In any event you will at least know that you have done all that you can to try and help a student who is having difficulty.

I hope that I have given you some good suggestions and guidelines for dealing with this issue. Thank you for your question. Please send any comments or further questions to us at www.askabipolar.com and we will be glad to try and answer them for you.

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