If a student does not feel well

Life as a student can sometimes be quite challenging, which can cause stress and anxiety. As a member of staff, it is not always easy to suspect or find out that a student is struggling or not feeling well.

Meeting students with mental health issues

If a student seems stressed or worried, this does not necessarily mean they have mental health issues. Many reactions are normal and temporary. Sometimes, however, a student might need some help finding the right support to deal with things. It is common for students to set the bar very high for themselves. They might feel they just need to "suck things up" and manage their problems and feelings by themselves. Intervening early on reduces the risk that the student will start to feel worse and helps them stay happy and healthy throughout their studies.

Reaching out

You might feel reluctant to reach out to someone you suspect might have mental health issues. Perhaps you worry that you will trigger something, appear insensitive, misinterpret the situation or fail to help. But the idea that you can make mental health issues worse by addressing them simply is not true. Talking openly about mental health reduces the stigma and can create a more accepting, supportive environment in which it is okay to seek help. Genuinely caring and asking how a student is doing might be just what that student needs to dare to address the cause of their suffering. Even if it turns out you misinterpreted things, or if the student declines your help, you will still have raised the issue. This might make it easier for the student to seek help later on. Maybe it even makes it easier for you to reach out to someone else in the future and ask them how they are doing.

If a student reacts in a negative way to your attempt to help them, that does not necessarily mean you have done a bad job. It might just be that they were not ready to talk, that they are ashamed or that they have been through things that make it hard for them to trust others and accept help.

What can I do? What are my responsibilities?

Not everyone feels comfortable discussing mental health issues. Doing your regular job and then somehow also finding the space and time to try and support a student not feeling well can feel insurmountable. At the same time, you might worry the student has no one else to turn to. Making pedagogical adjustments can be one way of easing their burden. But doing so is not always possible, or enough. The goal of reaching out should not be to try and solve all of the student's problems or to take responsibility for their health improving. Instead, you should just make it easier for the student to seek help and make use of the available resources.

It can be infinitely valuable that you ask the student how they are doing, that you listen, understand and show them there is a way forward – that they can get the help they need, in time. Giving someone hope can mean the world to them. To be able to do so, it helps to know what kind of support is available – scroll down for more information on that. Reaching out to someone and informing them about the support the University offers can also alleviate your own concerns and make it easier for you to focus on other things.

Seeking help can be hard

It is common for people who suffer from mental health issues to wonder whether their problems are "severe enough" to be taken seriously, or whether anything would even help. Students are often highly capable, with high expectations of themselves and their own ability to solve problems. Some might even feel ashamed of needing help. But waiting to seek help increases the risk that the student's relationships or studies will suffer and can lengthen their road to recovery.

Recognising the early warning signs of mental health issues and daring to reach out helps you make sure the student gets the support they need in time.

What is mental health?

The WHO defines mental health as "a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community."

Early warning signs of mental health issues

  • Reduced cognitive functioning, e.g. struggling to actively participate in class, focus, retain information and follow the thread of a conversation.
  • Altered social behaviour, e.g. withdrawal or crossing boundaries.
  • Altered mood, e.g. seeming more emotional, numb, or struggling to handle criticism.
  • Reduced ability to take care of oneself, e.g. no longer taking care of one's personal hygiene, rapid weight gain/loss, isolating oneself, altered alcohol habits, or no longer fulfilling one's commitments.
  • These changes are lasting or become more pronounced over time.

Action plan to provide initial support

It can be helpful to structure your actions when you first reach out to a student to try and help them. Here is a suggestion of steps to follow:

Reach out
  • Strike up a conversation.
  • Tell the student you care about them, e.g. by sharing what you have noticed and what you are worried about.
  • Ask open-ended, direct questions without being too confrontational.
  • Carefully monitor your tone and try to keep your posture relaxed, even if the student expresses strong emotions.
Listen open-mindedly, do not judge
  • Listen carefully to get a clear(er) picture of how the student is doing.
  • Be respectful of what they are going through, do not make any value judgements.
  • Do not offer any advice at this point.
Offer support and information
  • Be understanding and show compassion, ask the student if it would be alright to tell them about the support that is available.
  • Inform them of the services you are aware of (see the links below) and assure them they are not alone in not feeling great.
  • You do not need to have all the answers. But perhaps you can try to help them find out more, for example by contacting the Student Health Service.
Encourage them to seek professional help or support from their own network
  • Instilling a sense of hope and showing a person that there is a way forward can mean a lot to someone who is having a difficult time.
  • To prevent things from getting worse and avoid a long road to recovery, it is important to inform the student of ways they can seek support/care/protection straight away.
Take care of yourself The situation might affect you – we all have different needs.
  • What can you do to recharge and take care of your own needs?
  • Maybe you would like to talk about the issue with someone you know, or with the Student Health Service.
  • Do you need to be by yourself for a while, or would it be more helpful to spend time with others?
  • Would you like to hear back from the student, or do you feel the need to set a boundary and leave the matter to others?

Services to refer students to

Here is a list of support services you can either refer students to or contact yourself.

  • The Student Health Service welcomes students of Umeå University
  • Feelgood, +46 90-17 63 60, for staff and doctoral students and to manage conflicts among students.
  • 1177 lists self-help links and the contact details of helplines, shelters and counselling centres. Call 1177 for advice.
  • Primary care health centres. These are your first point of contact in the Swedish healthcare system. They will assess your condition and needs and can offer individual or group counselling or support.
  • Umeå Social Services, +46 90-16 10 02, deal with issues like domestic violence, honour-based abuse, poverty, substance abuse, housing, personal finance and suspected child neglect/abuse.
  • Youth Guidance Centre (UMO), for students and young adults up to the age of 23.
  • Information on discrimination and harassment by Umeå University.
  • Umeå's Psychiatric Emergency Services. Call +46 90-785 65 00 if you are worried someone is feeling so bad they might harm themselves or someone else. The Psychiatric Emergency Services hotline is manned 24/7. Similar services are available in all other regions.
  • Call 112 in case of emergency.
  • For non-emergency police assistance, call 114 14.
  • MIND, a volunteer-run organisation that works to promote mental health and prevent suicide.
  • CSN.se
Jeanette Lundberg