ASU trains professors to identify students in distress; how much support does your school offer?

(Editor’s Note: I wrote this post about monitoring the mental health of young adults yesterday morning before the gunman burst into the McNair Discovery Learning Academy. I am still running this item because I think it is very relevant to the discussion of this school incident. I have no idea what is happening in the mind of 20-year-old suspect Michael Brandon Hill, but I bet some warning signs were missed. I hope this young adult gets the help that he needs, and I am so glad no children or school staff were hurt in the incident. I truly admire the way the school bookkeeper  Antoinette Tuff shared her experiences with him and helped calm him. Maybe the warning signs discussed below could help prevent other possible tragedies.)

This is my third year teaching at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and every year I am amazed by how much the school wants to support the students – not just academically but emotionally.

We had training last Saturday and the deans brought in the director of ASU’s counseling services, Barbara Meehan, to speak to the associate faculty (more than 50 of us in all) about how to identify college students in distress and how to find help for the students if they need it.

Meehan told us that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. Accidents are first – often caused by impulsivity and/or drug/alcohol-related impairment.

Students’ issues can run the gamut from homesickness to physical illness to food insecurity (broke!) to deaths in the family, to postpartum depression (many have babies of their own) to forms of mental illness.

The professors are on the front lines keeping our eyes and ears open for issues. Meehan told us some of the signs to look for, which would probably help parents as well. Here’s the list:

(You also can find these indicators on ASU’s counseling website)

“Academic Indicators:
Negative change in performance
Continual seeking of special accommodations
Essays or creative work that indicates extremes of hopelessness, social isolation, rage or despair

“Personal/Interpersonal Indicators
Direct statements indicating distress, family problems or other difficulties
Unprovoked anger or hostility
A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong

“Physical Indicators
Deterioration of physical appearance
Coming to class bleary-eyed, hung over or smelling of alcohol
Excessive fatigue
Visible changes in weight

“Safety/Risk Indicators
Written or verbal statement of finality or suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming others
Giving away of prized possessions
History of suicidal thoughts or attempts
Self-injuries or self-destructive behaviors”

If a professor is concerned then they have lots of options depending on the severity of the situation:

  1. Talk to the student
  2. Let one of the deans know. They really do want to know what is happening with their students and they can help connect the dots if similar issues are cropping up in other classes. If a student misses more than two consecutive classes, we are to notify the deans so they can investigate.
  3. Call the Director of Student Success Mary Cook. Cook’s job is to make sure these students are OK and will succeed at school. If they are homesick, Cook is there with a shoulder to cry on. If they are in the hospital or in jail, Cook is their gal. If they are just sad or don’t have money for food, she can help with too. She is truly amazing.
  4. If something is more serious or happening right then, we can call or walk the student over to counseling. Counselors are available 24 hours a day and will come to the students as well.

It is an amazing network of support, and as a parent I would feel good knowing all of these adults are watching over my student and are there to support them. (I swear it’s more support than my kids get in elementary or middle school.)

I challenge other universities to talk to their faculty about these emotional and mental health issues and create a support system for the students.

I think parents should be asking about these types of programs when they are choosing a college. Who is there to support my student? Does anyone care at the university or in your child’s particular college how they are doing emotionally and mentally?

Does your child’s university offer these types of support programs? Did they talk about them with the parents during tours or orientation? Is this too much to expect from a school?

20 comments Add your comment


August 21st, 2013
7:19 am

Many colleges offer this kind so support because so many of our students come from such messed up situations.


August 21st, 2013
8:33 am

I think it’s too much to expect from a school, though I think it might be needed. In a large school like ASU (or UGA, GSU, etc), it’s easy to become a faceless person in the crowd. I know I went to a large state university and I didn’t have a class with less than 100 people until my Junior year. I don’t see how a professor can be expected to teach a rigorous class and also actively evaluate each student for potential mental health issues. I do think the students, parents, RAs, teachers, etc should be made aware of the resources available to them on campus. If a teacher can reach out while still doing their primary job well, that’s awesome and probably very needed. However, I think the teacher’s primary job is to teach. These are adults we’re talking about – sadly, given the parenting most kids receive today most kids don’t arrive at college prepared to be an adult. They are so used to having their parents intercede on their behalf and hold their hand for everything. I think raising kids to be more independent would reduce some of the stress they face when leaving home/going to college.


August 21st, 2013
8:47 am

I think it’s nice to have teachers who are invested in their students but it certainly isn’t easy for college teachers at big schools. It probably depends on how many students are in their classes and how many classes they have. It probably also depends on the type of teacher. My son has 200+ in his Biology lecture class so I doubt that guy would have a clue what’s going on in any of his student’s lives. The lab instructor is a 24-year old Grad Assistant who doesn’t give a flip so while they’re only 24 students in the lab, he probably won’t even bother to learn their names this semester. His other courses however are part of a cohort/learning community so the same 25 students have the same 3 classes together and the instructors all work together. It would be much more likely that one of those 3 teachers would clue into the students lives (which is actually the point of the learning community- to make sure those students succeed their freshman year).

TWG – how many students are in your classes and how many classes do you teach?

Young Lady

August 21st, 2013
8:52 am

My school had a support system. My sister’s school didn’t. Ours were schools of comparable size (small state schools) but she went to school in Alabama while I stayed in GA. I think they’re necessary because of the multitude of issues facing these adults. Many of them this is the first time away from home, others are older and returning to school, and others have undiagnosed mental health issues. You couldn’t get a medical diagnosis at my school but they provided counselors for any student that needed one. However my sister’s school barely had a medical health center that was open more than 2 days a week. You can imagine how bad that was.

I’m surprised at how thorough ASU’s is however. I know mine wasn’t that involved that they would help students with money for food. The attitude at my school was pretty much ‘You’re on your own with that.’ If you lived on campus you had to have a semester long meal ticket so you were guarenteed at least 1 meal a day on the cheapest option. But it was the off campus students that had so many issues. We had so many dropouts because they couldn’t afford to keep going and afford to pay for room/board, food, cars, etc.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

August 21st, 2013
9:00 am

I usually have 20 in a class. I usually just teach one class a semester but I’m looking at maybe two next semester. There are some classes such as the intro to mass communications which will be a very large lecture class but I think two-thirds are pretty small because you’re limited by the number of computers in a classroom. I definitely get to know my students — I usually have names down after the first or second day. (We do have a photos in Blackboard where you can start to learn them ahead of class. I don’t usually do that but it is an option.) But I could definitely go down the roll and tell you pertinent info. A lot of times they just want to talk. They want somebody to hear them. ASU offered a similar lecture my first semester teaching and I was glad they did because I had multiple students needing things that semester so I felt a little more prepared to get them to the right place.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

August 21st, 2013
9:05 am

The deans often teach the intro courses and so they start to get to know the freshmen. (The dean of the college helps freshmen move in!! He’s out there in his shorts in 111 degrees moving stuff for the kids.) They start in the program as freshmen and are all placed together in a dorm adjacent to the school. They have events on Mondays and Wednesdays in the school with speakers and movies related to journalism. They really do a lot to form a community for the students.


August 21st, 2013
9:11 am

@catlady – you took the words right out of my mouth :-) My daughter was shocked a few years ago at how many of her new freshmen friends came from such lousy home situations. Multiple divorces, parents in rehab, one kid couldn’t keep track of if this was his mother’s 3rd or 4th husband, alcoholics, missing father or mother . . . i wonder about these kids, there seems to be so many odds stacked against them in terms of establishing healthy, fulfilling, respectful and loving relationships.

Both universities offered similar programs — I remember the dean at our son’s university giving all the parents her cell phone, with humorous examples of when NOT to call (i.e., to check the background of a boy that your daughter has started dating (true story!)). My husband has indicated that they receive similar training in spotting at-risk behavior.

But as far as choosing a school based on support available? Sorry, no. If you think your kid is going to be that stressed in a university environment, then they don’t belong at university — let them do community college for a couple of years, mature, and get their feet under them. I would not expect a school to babysit my young adult child. The Resident Assistants are there to help, and have some training in gently approaching kids who are engaged in risky behavior — but at 18, let’s face it, kids know the dangers of drugs (after a decade of anti-drug campaigns at school), they know the dangers of alcohol, etc., etc. If they insist on making bad choices — well, you know, Darwin had a point and it might be time for the young adults to start taking responsibility for their actions (possibly for the first time, ever) instead of having the safety net ever widening in case of stumbles, falls and mistakes.

And last comment: Michael Brandon Hill. I get so damn angry at the “oh, what could we have done to prevent this?!” when crazy people do crazy things. Crazy is crazy. Blaming the rest of the world because he wasn’t “caught” before he did something stupid is blaming the WRONG PEOPLE. He is responsible for his actions, no one else. This collective guilt of “oh, we should have known better” is useless and non-productive.


August 21st, 2013
9:23 am

Kudos for professors who have time and will get to know their students. I agree that at a BIG college this could be a problem. Some DO care about things outside their job description.

@Seriously? Aside from anyone with deeper issues, I think you nailed it.
These are adults we’re talking about – sadly, given the parenting most kids receive today most kids don’t arrive at college prepared to be an adult. They are so used to having their parents intercede on their behalf and hold their hand for everything. I think raising kids to be more independent would reduce some of the stress they face when leaving home/going to college.

When I went to college, I called once a week and that was for 10 minutes. I figured it out on my own. My daughter is at UGA and she lives in an apartment. Her new room mates are adorable. They have spent time here and taken trips with us. This is their first time in an apartment. My daughter is telling me that they continue to say to her, ” ______ how do you do this? How do YOU KNOW this?” Um, because I travel and she had to learn how to do things around here for herself as her Dad was at work during the day.

I read posts from friends, on Facebook, and wonder when their kids will be allowed to grow up. My daughter just made her last car payment! She had a 3 year note on a used car and made every payment herself. That makes me proud! I did not do this when I was in college. I was provided with a 1966 Ford Station wagon. I used it to get to my job at Wal Mart. I was in college in 1979. Not sure many kids today would be excited about a 13 year old mini van…haha! At least I had wheels! Some students did not.


August 21st, 2013
10:21 am

As some of you know, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in college. I was 8 hours from home and basically on my own. Georgia Tech was not a school that was touchy feely and all concerned about my well-being. At. All. I did have some compassionate professors during the quarter where I had the most problems. There were counseling services available that I took advantage of and I was able to find a psychiatrist. The medical services at GT were excellent so I was able to get blood work done at school to monitor what all I needed to monitor taking my medicine. But did I feel like my teachers were watching for any “warning signs” that something was wrong with me? Heck no. I was afraid to even tell my teachers what was going on with me. A “so what” would have really been terrible for me at that stage. The few teachers I approached were helpful. Now, had I been at Spelman when this happened I do believe my experience would have been different. Teachers and staff were much more concerned about the students as people, not just numbers, but the medical facilities were not as advanced. I would have had to pay to go somewhere for my blood work and physical exams. So 6 in one hand, half a dozen in the other. It all worked out and I graduated on time.

Real Life

August 21st, 2013
12:20 pm

Certainly people, whether they are professors/instructors, friends or just classmates should speak up if they see some of the warning signs that ASU is writing about. But leave off the one of constantly seeking special accommodation. Two friends who are on faculty at the university I graduated from say this is common today, especially in freshman who are used to getting the special treatment at school and home.
It is important that people get help when they need it, but it is equally important to note that the school is not your parent and may not be able to pay close attention to every student. Even in the relatively small classes at the university I attended for my bachelor’s it was difficult for professors to notice individual changes in students. Most concerns were raised by fellow classmates who noticed significant changes in a classmate or friend. I applaud ASU in stepping forward to educate faculty about potential mental health issues, but also recognize that they are less likely to be able to single out students that need help than fellow classmates would be.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

August 21st, 2013
12:31 pm

ASU doesn’t fool around with the accommodations. They have to have a medically diagnosed disability and have to go through a whole other process if this is the case. In general for classwork, we can’t take anything late — it’s a zero. If anyone plagiarizes or libels anyone they get 55 percent of the points. You can’t offer one student something that you don’t offer all of them.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

August 21st, 2013
12:33 pm

Denise — They talked in the meeting about college being a time where some mental illness comes out — I’m not sure if bi-polar was one of the ones that came out regularly. I’m glad Ga. Tech could help you medically and I’m glad some professors worked with you. I hope that you’re doing well now.


August 21st, 2013
1:57 pm

Does bi-polar disorder make women worry about BPA’s and the like? Or is it that just a coincidence that all of the bi-polar women I’ve ever met worry about the stuff in their food.


August 21st, 2013
2:00 pm

Theresa – Thank you. I am doing very well. I take my medication and I go to my doctor regularly. I am very compliant. :-) I did to an experiment to see how I’d do sans meds for a few months recently and let’s just say I will need a lot of support if I ever do that again. Not smart to do on my own.

Also, bipolar disorder does manifest often around age 21-23. I was right “on time”.


August 21st, 2013
2:01 pm

@jarvis – I don’t know if you were being funny but I’ll answer. No, I don’t worry about stuff in my food. I am very picky about what I eat and how I eat it (don’t like my food to touch) but I’ve been that way since I was a kid.


August 21st, 2013
4:33 pm

I don’t think it’s all that hard for a professor/teacher to implement a basic screening that prompts them to investigate. For instance, if a student stops showing up for class you should probably start by emailing them and take it from there. Class so large you won’t notice they’re not there? Well, are they turning in their assignments? If not, that’s a sure sign they’re not in class, either. All it takes is a minute to shoot an email saying, “I noticed you’re not in class and I wanted to check to make sure you were okay. Can you tell me how you’re doing?”

I used to teach at the college level so I know it’s possible.


August 21st, 2013
5:07 pm

iRun, I agree that it might not be that hard to implement but some profs may not be interested in doing such a thing. When I was at Tech, a classmate of mine lost his roommate to suicide the day before a test. Our teacher gave him an F because he missed the exam. Clearly, after finding your roommate dead in your room, studying might not be the first thing on your mind. Teacher’s thought was that roommate was already dead so there was nothing classmate could do for him so he might as well had picked up his book and studied. Maybe I’m a bleeding heart but I probably would have let him reschedule the exam.


August 21st, 2013
6:19 pm

There is a HUGE difference between the emotional health issues and mental health issues. Emotional health issues such as homesickness and situational depression are difficult and debilitating, but will respond to the kind of support ASU provides because the sufferer KNOWS they have a problem. Mental illness is much more difficult since many mentally ill people do not really know or believe THEY have a problem and are much less likely to stay on their meds. This will NOT respond to support like visits from the Dean or the intervention of a school counselor.


August 21st, 2013
8:45 pm



August 21st, 2013
9:47 pm

@jan – you are absolutely correct. Right now one of my younger Sorority sisters is in the middle of a mental health crisis and in need of medical intervention. She does not believe she does and she has friends who support her with “they are just trying to stifle your creativity” “they just don’t understand you”. I don’t know her but from the things I hear of her behavior she sounds like she is full on manic. Her aunt was able to have the cops come to get her but they could only do a 72 hour hold. After 72 hours, if they do not believe you are a danger to yourself they won’t keep you against your will. So she is out willy nilly. Our mutual friends are very nervous for her but there is nothing they can do.