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What can you do when a student is experiencing personal difficulties?

As a Personal Tutor/Lecturer you are likely to have a great deal of direct contact with students and as a result, students may come to you when they are experiencing difficulties, or are in emotional crisis. Their problems may be related to transitional issues, such as moving away from home, being away from family, relationship difficulties etc.  Or their issues could be more of a personal nature, e.g. depression, anxiety, sexuality issues, bereavement, self-harm, addictions or any number of issues. 

It is always appropriate to offer a level of support and reassurance when a student discloses such information but it is also important to recognise the limits of your helping capability and signpost students appropriately.

At times students may require immediate attention and in such cases it is advisable to:

  • Take time to listen
  • Let the student know that you are concerned
  • Take the student seriously
  • Be extremely cautious regarding offering any advice
  • Let the student know your personal boundaries and the limits of your time and the support you are able to offer
  • Avoid feeling that you have to solve the problem yourself 
  • Advise the student that expert and professional help is available
  • Seek advice from Student Development and Well-being – our Well-being Team are always happy to discuss any concerns or issues you may have

 

When should you recommend counselling?

There is no simple answer to this question.  Signs that a student needs more help than you are able to provide may be overt or very subtle - you may know immediately that a student has serious problems, or it may take many months. Sometimes, instinct alone tells you that something is wrong. 

You may need to suggest counselling when a student: 

  • Presents a problem which you feel is outside your range of competence
  • Indicates that they have problems which are seriously affecting academic performance
  • Frequently fails to hand in work on time and/or attendance is poor or erratic
  • Displays unusual behaviour or exhibits a notable change in behaviour
  • Identifies serious problems or losses in relationships
  • Acts distraught, confused or disoriented
  • Tells you "secrets" that no one else knows and that you must not share
  • Exhibits behaviour that is threatening to themselves or others
  • Is disruptive in class, or in their living environment
  • Makes references to suicide
  • Is abusing drugs or alcohol
  • Is taking up an inordinate amount of your time talking about personal problems
  • Presents a problem which is likely to affect the professional relationship you have with the person

 

What should you say about counselling?

Counselling is one form of help and it is best to present it as a possible helpful option, rather than a stipulation, e.g. “I can't help you if you don't see a counsellor”.   Be clear and describe broadly how counselling can help, such as; seeing things from a different perspective, helping develop more constructive ways of coping and talking confidentially with someone independent from their own lives.

It can be useful to explain that when we experience problems that get us down, we can start to feel worse as the thoughts and feelings persist.  Counselling can offer the opportunity to explore the issue with a view to identifying an effective solution. 

 

Keep in contact

If possible, try to maintain contact with the student, asking them to let you know whether they decided to access the counselling service and if they found it helpful.

 

When a student refuses to accept counselling

Accessing counselling is a voluntary process and will only be effective if the client is a willing participant.  If you advise counselling support to a student, you likely did it for very good reasons but if they decide not to access this support then all you can do is accept their decision. 

There are exceptions to this however, as in cases of clear emergency, or if you feel that a student’s immediate well-being may be at significant risk, then you are advised to contact Student Development & Well-being at the earliest possible opportunity. 

Ideally, escort any such students up to Student Development & Well-being on the first floor of the Gateway Building.  You can also email your concerns to studentconcern@hope.ac.uk, or call us on 0151 291 3427.  

If it is not an emergency, it is important to give the student some time to think things over.

  • Be clear and honest about your concern for their well-being, and state clearly why you believe that counselling would be helpful.
  • Encourage the student to have a look at the counselling web pages. Our Frequently Asked Questions page covers the type of questions or concerns they may have regarding attending for counselling.
  • It is advisable to make a note of your concerns and also to consult with another senior member of staff and/ or inform the Head of Student Welfare & Well-being (it is good practice to seek the student’s consent before sharing any information the student has disclosed to you).

Refusing counselling may result in the student wanting to continue to talk to you, since s/he may have already shared something confidential.  This is where your own personal limits - your energy, time and ability to help - must be considered.  The more upset or disturbed a student is, the more likely s/he is to look to you for support or expect you to become their point of support.  Know your limits, clearly identify these with the student and continue to encourage counselling if their problem persists. 

If in any doubt, seek advice from Student Development & Well-being.