Faculty can play a significant role in helping traumatized students through mentorship, or just by reaching out to offer support. For example, faculty can help just by monitoring attendance in their courses and responding when they notice absences. Class absences are more often than not a sign that a student is being adversely affected in a significant way.[1] Faculty members may choose to reach to absent students, though there are also ways of bringing it to the attention of the dean of students rather than being directly involved.[2]

 

Professors should make a point of forming relationships with their students, providing mentorship while remembering that different students have different needs and are looking for different types of assistance.[3] For faculty members who are worried about having difficult conversations with students, especially those related to trauma or mental health, here are some tips for how to navigate those interactions:

  • You may be a mandated reporter for sexual assault (different schools have different definitions of what constitutes a mandated reporter), in which case you should inform the student of that before they tell a story you feel required to report.[4] The act of betrayal by someone in power may impact a student’s sense of his ability to trust people in the future.[5]
  • Similarly, never promise to keep secrets, but rather explain that you are there to listen but may need to report either for mandated-reporter-related reasons or if you believe the student’s life is in danger.[6]
  • If the student seems depressed, anxious, or is reporting trauma, encourage them to seek treatment (a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor or a support group).[7]
  • Listen attentively and avoid interrupting. Nod your head and maintain eye contact to demonstrate that you are listening.[8]
  • Express your opinions without blaming or shaming the student. Avoid terms like “you should have” or “why didn’t you” as these are value-laden.[9]
  • Be empathetic, which means relating to a person’s feelings. Empathetic responses rarely begin with “at least,” which constitutes an attempt to “silver lining” it.[10]
  • Be respectful and acknowledge the student’s feelings. Don’t try to talk the person out of his or her feelings or express shock.[11]
  • Don’t be patronizing or judgmental.  For example, don’t tell a student, “things could be worse” or “you have everything to live for,” which may make them feel even more alienated and alone. Instead, ask questions such as, “What’s causing you to feel so bad?” “What would make you feel better?” or “How can I help?”[12]
  • Paraphrase and reflect the student’s feelings. For example, “you sound very frustrated, this must be very hard for you…” It helps the student feel like they are being understood.[13]
  • Ask open-ended questions: “Tell me how you feel about your law school experience” vs. “Do you like law school?” This gives the student a sense control over what information to share.[14]
  • Never imply that because a student doesn’t remember a certain aspect or event, that the trauma did not occur.[15]
  • Allow for silence. This allows the student to gather thoughts and think about them more deeply before speaking.[16]
  • Avoid changes in mood or attitude, and avoid being confrontational or argumentative.[17]

 

Creating spaces where students feel safe to share their experiences provides crucial support to those suffering from trauma. Schools can also help facilitate relationships between students and faculty by connecting them and creating mentorship relationships.[18]Universities should provide institutional support required for trauma recognition practices: As Professor Hanlon states, “We must support all faculty toward the end of teaching intellectually and emotionally challenging material more attentively.”[19]

 

Examples of how university administrators can provide tools for professors addressing student trauma include providing: 1) office space in which professors can have difficult conversations with students one-on-one; 2) training in pedagogical choices and advice on guiding students through difficult material; and 3) self-care services to aid faculty in avoiding compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.[20] Better institutional support for faculty enables them to be more effective in supporting students.

 

[1] Substance Abuse & Mental Health Toolkit for Law School Students and Those Who Care About Them, THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION, (2014), http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_mental_health_toolkit_new.authcheckdam.pdf.

[2] Id.; Brian S. Clarke, Coming Out in the Classroom: Law Professors, Law Students and Depression, 403 J. L. Ed., Vol. 64 (2015), http://www.swlaw.edu/pdfs/jle/jle643clarke; Elyn Saks, A Tale of Mental Illness – From the Inside, TED, (June, 2012), http://www.ted.com/talks/elyn_saks_seeing_mental_illness?language=en.

[3] Yale Law Women, supra 38, at 61.

[4] Brett Sokolow, Who is a Mandated Reporter, of What?, Association of Title IX Administrators (2012), https://atixa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Mandated-Reporters.pdf.

[5] Suzuki, supra 30, at 4; Interviewing Part V: Interviewing Survivors, USCIS Asylum Officer Basic Training Course 21 (June 2004).

[6] Mayo Clinic, Suicide and Suicidal Thoughtshttp://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/suicide/in-depth/suicide/art-20044707?pg=2.

[7] John MacDevitt, Responding to Student Traumatic Writing: A Psychologist’s View, National Counsel of Teachers of English, 143, (2013), http://docplayer.net/11148845-Responding-to-student-traumatic-writing-a-psychologist-s-view.html

[8] THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION, supra 52, at 31.

[9] Id., at 31.

[10] Brené Brown, Empathy, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (December 10, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw.

[11] Mayo Clinic, supra 57.

[12] Id.

[13] THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION, supra 52, at 31.

[14] Id., at 32.

[15] The memory does not act like a video recorder, and recollections are reconstructions of elements from all over the brain. Richard J. McNally, Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory, 818 Can. J. Psychiatry, Vol. 50, No 13 (November 2005).

[16] THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION, supra 52, at 32.

[17] USCIS Asylum Officer Basic Training Course, supra 56, at 21.

[18] Ann L. lijima, Lessons Learned: Legal Education and Law Student Dysfunction, 48 J. LEGAL EDUC. 524, 526 (1998); Yale Law Women, supra 38; see also Lani Guinier et al., Becoming Gentlemen: Women’s Experiences at One Ivy League Law School, 143 U. PA. L. Rev. 1, 62 (1994) (“Along with a formal link between classroom participation and examination success, we suspect that there exists a psychological link between self-confidence, alienation, and academic performance. Students who are alienated by the formal classroom methodology, hierarchy, and size are arguably not psychologically prepared to succeed on the formal examinations. Those who doubt themselves or doubt whether they belong in the Law School do not perform as well.”(Footnotes omitted)).

[19] Aaron R. Hanlon, My Students Need Trigger Warnings—and Professors Do, Too, New Republic, (May 17, 2015), https://newrepublic.com/article/121820/my-students-need-trigger-warnings-and-professors-do-too (“A trigger warning doesn’t have to be an act of censorship or a straightjacketing of interpretation; it can be a starting point for a ranging discussion that ultimately challenges students’ points of view.”).

[20] For more information, see Francoise Mathieu, Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma, Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Ch. 6 (2012).