Guiding When It’s a Matter of Life or Death

Lorenzo Gritti for The Chronicle

December 04, 2016

Inevitably, a senior student-affairs administrator at a large institution will deal with the extreme cases. These are the ones that can’t be described, even in veiled or disguised terms, because they are so sensitive and sometimes so unique that any discussion would carry identifiers. These are cases in which the next step for the student is usually prison or death.

Of the students in those situations with whom I have worked, some have, indeed, gone to prison or died. Some I have lost track of. But some of them have recovered and gone on to be fine. I sometimes bump into them around town, or they send me the occasional email to tell me they are okay, maybe many years later. It is impossible to know what real impact you had on those who went on to be OK, just as it is impossible not to wonder what you could have done for those who didn’t, or those whose fate is unknown.

These students might be, or might have been, in a bad drug scene. They might have become enmeshed in some fraud scheme. They might be on the verge of self-starvation, or near suicide following a trauma. They might be going through an identity crisis. Their family-support network may have forsaken them. In the worst cases, one or both parents are their tormentors, or worse, their mentors in crime. They may simply be kids who are on a mission to demonstrate that the system has failed them, and that no one can help them or will even support them. They can be very persistent in their quest to make their point. It is our job to prove them wrong.

One may legitimately wonder why college student-affairs offices, which may go by other names, must deal with these cases in the first place. The problems these students face are far bigger than what even those institutions with the best resources are equipped to deal with. Many of these students should not even be in college — they should be dealing with their nonacademic issues so that they can come back strong and fulfill their academic potential. But they are in college, and sometimes managing to maintain satisfactory academic standing. The student-affairs office is often a small but crucial part of the solution.

Many of these students see college and graduation as a salvation, sometimes their only salvation. They are terrified that they will be told that they cannot continue, that they will be expelled or somehow excluded, and this fear contributes significantly to their distress. For some, the college has the only services to which they have access; outside the institution, they would be on their own. After all, even people who have serious problems have the right to an education.

It is important to reassure them that not finishing now does not mean not finishing; that exams and assignments are not designed to find out how well they can do when they are ill or in distress, but rather to help them learn when they are strong, healthy, and relatively free from external concerns. It is important to reassure them that there is a world outside the campus, and that help is available there, too.

The student-affairs office can play an important role in allowing students to feel secure enough to seek help, and then in helping them identify and obtain the resources and services they need, on or off the campus. This can take a great deal of time — and patience and openness are key. Some of these students will vociferously claim that they don’t want or need help. They might send aggressive and hurtful emails, get verbally abusive, even physically intimidating. They might file grievances against those who are trying to help them. But, interestingly, they keep coming back when they are in distress.

An effective student-affairs or other such program must separate the components of the interactions with these most-at-risk students. The insults, unpleasantness, or physical intimidation should be treated appropriately as unacceptable, but separately from the legitimate cues and requests hiding among them, which should be taken seriously and followed up on.

That isn’t to say that anyone in any student-affairs office should tolerate any abuse. But some students are in such dire straits that at first they see no other way of getting help or attention than by attacking those whose help and attention they seek. Others, because of mental illness, are not aware that their interactions are seen as aggressive, or simply don’t know other ways of interacting.

We must help teach them. Most colleges have people who are trained to handle these cases, whether in student affairs, mental-health services, or elsewhere. It’s our job to make sure that a student who fits that profile is directed to people who will be able to help.

These are high-stakes cases: The worst outcome is death, self-inflicted or otherwise. The best outcome is an email out of the blue some years later from a survivor who has found a niche and is living there comfortably, whether he or she eventually graduated or not.

On most campuses, we are ill-equipped to deal with these cases, and our influence is frustratingly limited. Often the best we can do is to remain available — and sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.

In some cases we can coordinate a response from the various student services that will actually make a visible difference. We can’t force people to get help, and we shouldn’t blame ourselves if they don’t. But we all can have a plan to help them if they decide to act for themselves.

It is easy to throw someone away. Too easy. In the end, it isn’t much harder to simply let them know they are not completely alone — and sometimes, it saves them.

André Costopoulos is vice provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta, in Canada.