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Respond, refer, report: how to sustain student mental health during the COVID-19 crisis

This model can be employed at any institution and can be used by instructors in their response to student requests for informal course accommodations.


While the arrival of vaccines against COVID-19 gives hope that this pandemic will end at some point later this year, the reality is that this winter term will unfold much like the fall term before it. As faculty, staff and students continue to navigate the uncertain and ever-changing context of COVID-19, the mental-health strain experienced by everyone teaching, learning and working at universities persists.

Students are reporting feelings of loneliness, poor sleep and health habits, low motivation, a lack of engagement, and increased anxiety due to uncertainty and having a lack of control over their current circumstances. They also are having difficulty managing external distractions and introducing structure to manage online and self-directed studies. We are also hearing that the stress of the pandemic and overwhelming workload is resulting in students being less able to monitor their progress and meet deadlines, and lower persistence on performing academic tasks. Perhaps most worrying is that these students are also less likely to utilize academic resources. Patterns of avoidance often lead to chronic procrastination, more stress and poor academic performance.

These kinds of behaviours are often challenging for instructors, even under so-called “normal” circumstances. However, given that we are now working in a system that is experiencing significant stress and disruption, it is crucial to develop sustainable responses. For us, sustainable responses foster respectful and humane connections between faculty, staff and students. We need approaches that support the types of connections that sustain everyone whose lives are deeply connected to university life.

Signs of a struggling student

While there are numerous support services on campuses that students may avail themselves of in order to support their well-being, instructors play a crucial role in helping students to navigate these resources; and doing so is a key element of sustaining relationships with students. Further, as instructors, we see the patterns in behaviour that might indicate a student is struggling – often in the form of repeated requests for extensions or deferred assessments, missed work or complete disengagement with course content – and, in extreme cases, showing up at the end of term pleading to make up for all the missed work. In many ways, we want to be flexible and accommodate requests for deadline changes. However, that flexibility can be more challenging when we are also strained, and if these requests are repeated, this may suggest that there are some underlying issues that need to be addressed for the overall well-being of the student.

Nevertheless, it is our experience that if instructors are unsure of what to do, or are overwhelmed, we tend to grant these requests rather than use these moments as opportunities for connection and for students to enhance their coping capacity. This is even more so the case in the era of COVID-19, when we are encouraged to be flexible and compassionate. However, these decisions come at a cost, and with a general feeling of discomfort: is this fair to the other students in the course, who may equally be struggling but have not approached a professor to request informal accommodations? And secondly, how does this ensure the rigour of the course is maintained?

These scenarios illustrate the challenges with fostering sustainable respectful relationships with our students: we have students that challenge the boundaries of our course requirements and expectations, and the boundaries of our role as instructor are blurred. The tension between our responsibilities to support and educate, and the need to assess, rank and evaluate students, can feel overwhelming. The chances of ethical trespass, where we inadvertently harm a student because of the processes and practices of the systems in which we work, seems high. Whether we accommodate these requests can have significant impact on a student’s performance in our courses and programs. What if our denial leads to a worsening in mental health?

One of the ways those of us at Carleton University have been trying to support instructors in these moments is to build practices that are sustainable, foster connection, respect academic integrity and take a collective approach to student support. For example, at Carleton we have adopted a model called “recognize, respond, refer, report.” This model can be employed at any institution and can be utilized by instructors in their response to student requests for informal course accommodations.

For example, if a student indicates they are struggling to keep up with coursework, rather than simply granting an extension or deferral, we can instead respond with both the informal accommodation (if deemed appropriate) and query whether the student needs additional supports on campus. The query is how we can reach out and connect to a student, to recognize them as a full human being while encouraging the student to cope and become resourceful.

Referral to the appropriate resources

Sometimes a student’s behaviour is due to issues of time management, and therefore a referral to academic advising or a peer mentorship group is warranted. Sometimes the issue is due to underlying symptoms of anxiety and depression, and a referral to health and counselling services is more appropriate. Occasionally there may be an undiagnosed disability, such as ADHD, which may require more formal academic accommodations through the university’s disability centre. Sometimes it is simply that things are weighing particularly heavy at that point in time, and a flexible and compassionate response is all that is necessary.

Either way, the response by the instructor provides an opportunity to refer the student to the appropriate resources on campus. Crucially, this provides the mechanism through which the student can focus on skill-building, which ideally will promote success in their course or program, and beyond. The Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities has been promoting such skill-building to complement formal disability accommodations by offering comprehensive assessments to promote self-awareness, individualized learning strategies and mental health interventions and tailored case management support to foster student engagement and resilience. Similarly, the From Intention to Action program is available to all Carleton students and offers the same supports to students who are overwhelmed and having difficulty coping with stress.

Instructors are also encouraged to report any concerning behaviour to student care and support, department chairs, managers and/or campus safety services if they feel the student is in immediate crisis. At Carleton, we have an online “care report” process whereby any staff, student or faculty member can let the campus wellness team know if there is a student they are very concerned about. Another key piece is to check back in with students and follow up with them to ensure they have received adequate care and support.

In our experience, this approach is helpful in that it is relatively simple for instructors to follow, thereby decreasing their sense of being overwhelmed and uncertain as to how to respond to a student. It keeps roles and expectations clear and ensures students received tailored supports from highly trained staff. Systematic research is warranted to explore how and whether employing this approach enhances student success overall and in the long-term compared to other approaches.

There is still more to be done

While this model gets us off to a good start, we still see lots of room to improve our responses so that they are respectful and sustainable. These changes include the need to raise general awareness that an informal course accommodation is a support that an instructor may implement to help students achieve essential learning goals, not avoid them. Institutions like ours also need to have more fully developed supports for students with disabilities. There needs to be a clearer articulation of what pathways are open for any students who are unable to meet course and program requirements; building program and course on and off ramps could be a key part of this work.

Instructors, staff and peers could all use more training on how to have difficult conversations; how to recognize signs of mental illness and crisis; how to implement universal instructional design; and effective practices for supporting students from diverse backgrounds and experiences, particularly Black and Indigenous students. And, most importantly, we argue that conversations like this, where we share approaches across universities, is invaluable to universities helping all staff, instructors and students get through this difficult time and to ensure we come out of this pandemic with stronger, more supportive community structures within universities.

The authors all work at Carleton University: Kim Hellemans is an instructor and chair of the department of neuroscience; Sonia Tanguay is the senior disabilities co-ordinator at Paul Menton Centre; Sarah Todd is a professor and director of the school of social work; and Michelle Baulch is manager, student care and support.

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