At most universities and colleges in the UK, the role of personal tutor is defined as more than just keeping students on track academically. We have a pastoral care role as well, and so need to be available to help students manage the stresses and pressures they experience during student life. When these are academic—deadlines, writing problems, issues with group work—we are usually in our element. Personal problems can feel out of place, or seem like an overwhelming responsibility.
But often the first person students with personal or mental health problems unburden themselves to is a lecturer. How can you know if he or she needs tea and sympathy or a referral to services, and how should you proceed? Here are two typical cases.
Case study: Linda.*
Linda, a student with bipolar disorder, started her undergraduate programme with high hopes. An academic support plan was in place from day one. However, by her second term, lecturers started to notice erratic behaviour. Luckily, her personal tutor was informed and was able to speak with her about it at a regularly scheduled tutorial.
It turned out that Linda had not registered with a GP, so when her medication ran out she wasn’t sure what to do. She had hoped she could do without it, but that wasn’t the case. Her personal tutor called the student health office, which emailed over a list of GPs near campus and details of the student counseling service. With support from her personal tutor, Linda was able to get back on track.
However, her tutor scheduled more frequent meetings with Linda, which built her confidence and ensured that she knew who to talk to about further concerns and did not fall behind academically.
Case study: Jakob.*
Jakob was a sporty, popular student in his third year when he suddenly seemed to disappear from lectures and tutorials. His personal tutor followed up staff concerns with a letter home.
In a phone call, Jakob revealed that he had gotten into debt and, in a foolish attempt to get ahead of his creditors, gambled away part of his student loan. His tutor was able to help him arrange for a leave of absence, and walked him through returning after his financial situation was cleared up.
These two cases illustrate key principles in working with students who may be experiencing distress. The student’s academic progress was at risk, so the lecturer did not ignore the problem. She was available, non-judgmental, and acted as a link to resources. She did not attempt to provide a counseling service or to solve the problem, but identified sources of expert help and assisted the student in accessing these.
Personal tutors should keep current on both university and community sources of help regarding issues that may affect students, such as unplanned pregnancy, health and disability issues, domestic violence, substance misuse, and debt. Build links with your student health service, disability support office, and Students Union.
Lecturers must keep appropriate professional boundaries, meeting students on campus and not sharing personal phone numbers. Ensure that students approve before you share information with anyone else.
Crucially, keep track of students after the problem is initially revealed: It’s hard to admit that you have a problem, and it’s hard to address it when you’re in the middle of it. Students in trouble need support, and once information and referrals have been provided, you may still be called on for tea and sympathy (as well as advice on essays).
* Both cases are based on real students, but names have been changed.