When Students Write About Personal Pain
By Teresa Kelly, Kaplan University Composition Faculty
As family, friends, colleagues, and fans worldwide mourn the death of comedy legend Robin Williams from suicide on August 11, composition instructors face another of those moments where outside events bring scary and uncomfortable realities into writing classrooms. This tragedy can become a teaching moment and a chance to open a dialogue about suicide prevention and mental health issues, as long as educators remember that they are not mental health professionals and seek appropriate support.
According to the Ohio State University suicide prevention site (2014), college students face special risks for suicide – including substance abuse, stress, and isolation. Often, these students seek help in settings they perceive as safe – such as through an assignment or a relationship with a trusted instructor. The Brazelton Center for Mental Health Law (2007) notes that even students who have issues but don’t self-identify will exhibit warning signs.
Composition sees more soul-bearing work than many other disciplines because it asks students to be passionate about their subjects. An educator’s worst nightmare is the moment in class, through discussion, via a journal, or through an assignment, that a student reveals something that leads to fear for the student’s safety or that of others. Being on the receiving end of an “I think about death” post is a scary, lonely, and helpless feeling. However, there are strategies to help composition instructors intervene with students who need help.
According to Brazelton (2007), helping a potentially troubled student starts before the student even enrolls in a course. Educators should learn to identify possible warning signs and must know their institutions policies and procedures for aiding students, including student assistance services, reporting procedures, and what to do in an emergency situation. “Listen” to what students are saying in their writing. Value their words and look beneath the surface. Knowing warning signs can help identify a potential issue with a student who does not come out and write “I want to die.” Learning about resources before a student is in crisis allows an instinctive, immediate response.
Above all else, warning signs cannot be ignored. Instructors who need help identifying or responding to a potentially suicidal student should reach out to their institution before a need arises. Educators teach more than composition, history, or biology. We teach students. They are always our first concern. If anything is to be gained from the untimely death of Robin Williams, who brought joy to millions, it is that suicide does not discriminate. Know the signs and know what to do – for you and your students.
Brazelton Center for Mental Health Law. (2007). Supporting students: A model policy for colleges and universities. Retrieved from http://www.tucollaborative.org/pdfs/Toolkits_Monographs_Guidebooks/education_supported_education/Bazelon.pdf
Ohio State University. (2014). Identifying risk factors. Retrieved from http://suicideprevention.osu.edu/prevention-information/warning-signs/