Using Your Teaching Superpower to Detect Students’ Mental Health Issues

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By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt, PMP, CLTD
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University

I recently saw a tee shirt that read, “I’m a mom….what’s your superpower?’ As a mom of two, the shirt made me smile because it highlighted a very profound thought. Each of us has an ordinary characteristic that, when truly utilized, can achieve extraordinary things. As an online instructor for nearly a decade, I can tell you that it is the most rewarding position I’ve had throughout my 30-plus-year career for one reason: the students. I’ve been privileged to interact with students around the globe, who come from various disciplines, educational backgrounds and professional experiences.

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It’s the personal connections that bond us on so many levels. I feel I am more than an instructor; I’m a champion, counselor, cheerleader and confidant rolled into one. Yes, teaching is my superpower. However, during the past months, those superpowers have truly been tested due to the coronavirus pandemic. In this COVID-19 environment, more people are practicing social distancing and increasing their time staying at home. While this self-enforced quarantining decreases the chances of infection, it may also increase other hidden issues, such as mental health illnesses.

What Is Mental Health?

According to, mental health is “… our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.” Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including:
  • Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry
  • Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
  • Family history of mental health problems
It’s important to know that, while many mental health issues are treatable, mental health is a taboo topic in many cultures. According to clinical social worker Mark Maginn, “There are a number of reasons why mental health is such a taboo subject. The first [taboos] that comes to mind are historical and religious that people with mental health issues were possessed by demons or unclean in some way. People who didn’t fit in were also labelled as witches or ostracized.” Fast forward to the 21st century, and many taboo feelings still exist. For example, you might often hear the sentiments that “Only crazy people need mental assistance” and “If you pray, it will go away.” While mental health care is advancing in many ways, some sufferers are slow to reach out for help because of cultural preconceptions and social misconceptions regarding mental health.

Determining a Student’s Mental Health Starts with Listening

As an instructor, I was taught a powerful lesson when a student mentioned he would be out of the classroom for a few days to handle a personal issue. The student later sent me an email to indicate he was ready to resume class and wanted to catch up on missed assignments. In that moment, it would have been easy to focus on the coursework. Instead, I responded with one sentence: “I’m glad you’re back and I want you to know I am here to answer any questions you have and to serve as a resource.” The student’s next response was not about catching up on coursework, but thanking me for being open to him. What followed was an emotional admission of a tumultuous weekend of events. I offered to speak to the student over the phone and provide university crisis counselors’ contact information. I also forwarded the email to university officials to see if anything else could be done to assist him. It was this experience that led me to be introspective and to truly assess what indicators I could have used to help him earlier.

Looking for Indicators of a Lack of Mental Health

So as instructors, how do we address societal and cultural barriers to mental health? How do we develop this “superpower” of helping students in the online environment? The first step is to acknowledge that mental health issues are real and to look for indicators of them in the classroom.

Identifying Rants and Negative Responses

If forum discussion responses sound negative or take the view that the “glass is half empty” all the time, use open-ended questions like “How can I help?” and “What led you to that decision?” to investigate why the student feels that way. Many students don’t know how to ask for help, so it’s up to the instructor to detect these subtleties and address them promptly.

Looking for Patterns of Problem Behavior

In the online environment, you may experience a student only once during his/her degree program. So it’s difficult to assess a student’s behavioral pattern during an eight-week course. However, university officials could compile a list of characteristics of students who are more likely to succeed or fail in a course and pass on that information to instructors. Other warning sign patterns include prolonged absences from class and forum posts that diverge from the weekly subject/topic. Many students are passionate about a subject. However, when a student devotes forum posts or writing assignments to a topic that does not pertain to the assignment instructions, course topic, or instructor expectations, that can serve as a red flag.

Providing Resources for Students

It’s important to provide students with a resources page that includes how to ask for help and where to go to get help. Instructors should be aware of resources outside the classroom that are offered to students to ensure consistent communication. In addition, the information needs to be provided in multiple online locations — via email, course announcements, student portals and individuals who regularly interact with students.

Develop an Online Community for Teachers

Often, the only student background information an online teacher receives is what the student chooses to contribute in the Week 1 introduction. However, if past instructors have detected notable mental health issues, this information should be communicated to subsequent instructors. For example, a colleague at another online university noted during a faculty meeting that five instructors remarked how the same student in each of their classes lost his grandmother around Week 6 of the course. Coincidence? Or was that masking a bigger issue? One will never know, but this highlights the need for instructors to share experiences that might help identify potential issues with students in their classrooms. In addition, staff can serve as a resource for determining a student’s behavioral patterns. For example:
  • Does the student regularly drop courses or ask for an extension?
  • Does the student have prolonged absences from the university, taking off several semesters at a time?
  • Has the student in the past used university resources, such as a chaplain service, the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) website or a mental health counselor?
While the actual conversations may be privileged, could instructors benefit from having a portal to access this information? Probably. Mental health is a tough subject to discuss. Detecting mental health issues in the online environment is tougher because most of the communication between the teacher and the students is in writing. Building an environment that celebrates trust and openness means the conversation does not end after Week 1. Communicate and over-communicate that you are an instructor who cares and can assist students. That is truly a superpower.

About the Author

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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