Home / Faculty Guidance for Supporting Students’ Mental Health / Guidance for Responding to Student Distress Following a Tragedy or Crisis
When a tragedy happens on campus or off campus and affects our students, knowing how to respond can be challenging, and you may not always feel in your comfort zone. This is completely understandable. Yet your role as an instructor is an important one in the larger system of student support at Tufts. In these moments, you may be the first university employee some students see following an event, or the first person to notice a student’s absence.They will look to you for empathy, reassurance and flexibility as they navigate their academic responsibilities while experiencing a reduced capacity to function due to distress. You are not expected to take on a counseling role, but simply to be caring and sensitive adults who are tuned in and responsive.
To prepare yourself for these inevitable moments, we have developed this resource to support you in responding sensitively in these moments, and to ensure you know what resources are available to you and your students. Read it now, and bookmark it for later to refer to.
There are many people who understand mental health issues and concerns, and who are available for you to look to for advice, and to support our students. You are part of a larger system in place to care for students’ wellbeing. Familiarize yourself with available services for students on your campus, and bookmark them. Bookmark this guide, as well, so that you are able to quickly find it as a resource for framing your response when students are in distress.
Every day is a “day after” for someone. While this resource is focused on when a student, faculty or staff member on campus dies, the suggestions for instructor response are widely applicable to many circumstances - the day after an unexpected election result, an insurrection, the day after Russia invades the Ukraine, an earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the day after Ahmad Arbery (another and another Black person) murdered, the day after…on and on. Our response is important in these moments, fostering community is important, and we might not know as much as we would like about how to handle these moments or what actually transpired.
On a college campus, the classroom is the only space that is not optional for students, which makes the instructor role complex at times. As student stress, anxiety and depression levels have risen sharply, national and international conflicts and crises are constant and instantly reported, we are called to notice and attend to the myriad ways students respond to their distress. We need to be able to both teach and care for students, and for many instructors this is not a comfortable space. What we now know from neurobiology about emotion and the brain is that this dual role of teaching and caring was always necessary for learning. We are whole humans, and students don’t turn off all emotion when entering the classroom - nor do we instructors.
In her message to the community following a tragedy in the spring of 2022, the Reverend Elyse Nelson Winger, Tufts University Chaplain, eloquently expressed the role of community in these moments:
Grief is a natural and important response to loss, and best held with others. Healing takes a long time, and everyone's path through grief is different. Sudden loss can rupture our sense of stability, and you may feel sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt, numbness, distractedness, or loneliness in the coming days and weeks. As a member of our community, we hope that you will also share how you are feeling with people who can support you, for I believe that Valarie Kaur's words ring true: “...grieving loss in community is how the hole turns into a wound that can heal,” (Kaur, V., See No Stranger, p. 33).
At the same time, as Reverend Winger communicated, grief is often dealt with in community. Not all students will necessarily require a therapist. For those who may be experiencing extreme or debilitating grief, talking to a trained professional may be useful, but the range and intensity of emotions that accompany loss should not automatically be seen as needing counseling by professionals. Offering a compassionate response and emotional first aid does not mean you are “being a therapist.” You are simply being a good human, and a part of our community of support in healing.
Become as well informed as possible about what happened, but assume that the facts are not all in. The process of notification from the Dean of Student Affairs and the University to the community is complex and multifaceted, and students often learn details before an official announcement through peers and social media. The wishes and needs of the family of the student, faculty or staff member are respected by the University, so the information you receive may not be as detailed as you might like, or as soon as you like. Reassure students that the administration cares deeply and must work with the family, the police, peers, and potentially the hospital, and want to be accurate and respectful in their communication. Wanting to know more is natural, and at the same time, it is not the most important thing to be focusing on.
Tragedies are always hard to deal with and while each one is unique, developing a thoughtful and comparable response to all of these moments honors each as equally worthy of grief, each loss as equally important. Consider that students will notice and compare your responses to different events, and developing a measured and somewhat standard response is an inclusive and reassuring approach. This guide is intended to help you to develop a planned response.
The goal of emotional support is to give people permission and space to express their emotions. It is the act of freely giving support without becoming invasive. It is being empathic, acknowledging the difficulty, being observant, and providing the opportunity for students to approach you privately to request reasonable flexibility for their academic work if needed.
Don’t fear asking your students how they are doing, rather be prepared. Try to provide time to talk about the incident and the student’s feelings, and listen empathically. (see below for empathic listening cues and what not to say) During the grief process, students may quickly switch emotions. The primary switch of emotions while crying is to anger. It is important to accept the person's feelings of anger. This is a very normal response to distress and holding the space for those emotions and not shutting them down is important.
Keep your words simple and be brief.
Sources: Coping with the Sudden Death of a Student
Responding After a Tragedy | University Counseling Service, University of Iowa
Psychological First Aid: Resources for Faculty in Higher Education, Tufts CELT
There is no one response that will work for every student because there is no timeline for grief. Some will be affected more than others for many reasons, and grief will present differently for each person. Try to avoid making assumptions about what others may or may not believe, how they may or may not feel, or even about how they may or may not understand what happened. It is important to try to avoid imposing or even just proposing a particular way of viewing, understanding, or experiencing grief.
Many students may hope or expect to talk about what happened in class. Some may have been present or have been a close friend or student in a class with the person, others may not have known the person, but be deeply affected for other reasons. For other students, the classroom is the last place they want to talk about what happened, and having to talk about it or listen in multiple classrooms may be overwhelming and painful. Our good intentions in addressing the event may not always have the impact we intend, so approaching this thoughtfully is important.
Silence on the part of instructors can be read as a lack of compassion at best, and hostility at worst - even if that is not the case. Students need to feel comfortable to express themselves or not, and to be offered space to be heard. That is why it is important for us to pause, and to acknowledge events when they happen, and offer our care and concern.
Remember to keep in mind that for many affected students, the days, weeks and even months following may be challenging, and impede students’ ability to do their work.
What each student needs may be different, and hard to predict. For some, sticking with their routine will be helpful, for others, taking time off may be what they need. Some may be able to complete their work in a timely way, others not.
Source: "Tips for Educators" Central Michigan University Crisis / Emergency Information for Faculty and George Washington University Counseling Center
In attempting to support students or colleagues in distress, our choice of words is important. In an effort to comfort or show empathy, some of our responses may unintentionally trivialize or diminish others’ emotions. In these moments, allowing people the space to feel the way they feel is most helpful. Below are some examples of empathy blockers and facilitators.
|Probing and questioning can feel unsupportive or judgemental.||“I wonder whether you are reacting like this because…”
”Why do you think this is so hard for you?”
“How well did you know them?”
|“That makes so much sense to me.”
“I can see why this is hard.”
|Specific advice in these moments is often unwanted and can shut down further connection. An open, listening stance is most helpful, not offering a solution.||”Why don’t you try doing this?”
“Did you try x?”
“It would be so much easier if you…”
|“I understand what you are saying.”
“How can I support you?”
|Trying to cheer the person up can downplay their experience or diminish their feelings as valid.||“Look on the bright side”
“It’s not the end of the world”
“You’ll feel better / get past this.”
|“That sounds really hard / challenging / painful.”|
|Feeling sorry for the person doesn’t always offer empathy and can imply a lack of agency.||“Oh, you poor thing.”
“I feel so sorry for you.”
|“I can see why that would frustrate / bother you / make you sad.”
“You are so strong.”
|Relating your own experience can detract from the person grieving’s experience and whether they feel heard.||“Let me tell you about the same thing that happened to me.”
“Let me tell you about a similar experience I had that was even worse, and how I handled it.”
|“This is such a hard thing to go through.”|
|Assumptions offered about why something might have happened are just that.||“I’m sure they were in a lot of pain and couldn’t see a way out.”||“It is so hard to understand why these things happen.”|
Sources: FuelEd Schools 2020
Carefully consider whether or how to hold a discussion with your students - many of us are not skilled enough to take this on, and we do not want to cause additional pain by doing so.
Following are some important considerations and alternatives:
Some tips and considerations during the conversation:
Adapted from Responding After a Tragedy | University Counseling Service University of Iowa