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Helping struggling student in class

orange turtle

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Hi. I have noticed that one of the students in the class I TA has been looking progressively more distressed over the winter term. She has not been participating in discussions as much, lost quite a lot of weight, comes to class with dark rings under her eyes, and I can see her collarbones when she takes off her jacket. 

At the end of classes last month, she asked me if I would be TAing another class she was interested in in the fall, and when I said yes, she said she was going to take it. 

I will be seeing her again in a few months.

Should I say something if I notice that she still looks distressed? Should I say something now?

I can't quite tell if the distress is stress from school, life, illness, or drug abuse, and I don't want to guess. I feel responsible to say something, but I don't know how. All the web pages I googled say to approach her in private, ask her how she is doing, express concern, listen, acknowledge my limitation in expertise, suggest resources without forcing her to use the resources, and follow-up.

What do you think? Has anyone here tried it? What strategies worked?

I struggled and am still struggling with my own life. I do wish professors had approached me to ask how I was doing because as I learned, several noticed. I don't want the same to happen to her but am not sure if she would feel the same way I did about being approached.

Advise, please and thanks.


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This is so intensely personal and depends on the situation. I have, in the past, approached some people. Some wanted help, some didn't. If/when I do approach someone, I try to do it in person and in a non-threatening environment, making it clear that they can walk away at any time with no penalty (because obviously, if I notice something, it's usually because they are my students, and I wouldn't want them to think anything they say or do will affect their grade). Ahead of time, be sure you know what resources are available at your school for some of the more common problems people might face (how do you reach out to mental health services? the ombudsperson? the Title IX office or equivalent at your school? who is this person's advisor and major/department?). You might also try and ask the DUS at your department if they know this student and what they think of their performance. It might be that someone is already aware of the problem and is dealing with it. The DUS will usually know. And if you decide to approach the student, you find them at a time that seems as non-intrusive and private as possible, and you just say you noticed that something may be off and that you wanted to them to know that you are there for them, now or later, if they want to talk or ask for help, and you're also happy to help them identify resources even if they don't want to talk to you. At that point, it's entirely up to them. 

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This is really school specific. At the institution I work at, there's a form we can submit if we're concerned about a student. On the form, it notes that we aren't to speculate about the causes of what's wrong, but rather to report strictly on what we've seen and observed. (The reason for this is because under FERPA, students have access to those forms and thus could know exactly what you think is wrong with them. But also because most of us aren't trained in diagnosing these kinds of things.) If I were you, I would contact someone in the Dean of Students office about whether there's a mechanism for expressing concern for students in a formal way where someone else can then follow up on it.

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