Professors Supporting Law Students – Additional Resources

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about creating a learning environment that supports mental health and well-being.

It is important to note that many schools will have specific policies about the extent to which faculty are able to assist students who are experiencing difficulty. Please confirm your school’s accessibility policies HERE or by consulting your administration.

In This Section:

Recognizing a Student in Distress
Supporting and Referring a Student in Distress
Responding to Emergent Situations
Responding if a Student Seeks Academic Accommodations
Creating a Supportive Learning Environment for All Students
A Final Thought: Why Do Some Students Wait Until the Last Minute To Seek Help?

Recognizing a Student in Distress

The following inventory is excerpted from the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty and Staff Resource on Mental Health, available HERE. The presence of one indicator alone may or may not mean that the student is in distress. It is always important to check on your concerns. However, the more indicators that are present, the greater the likelihood that the student would benefit from support or a referral to additional resources.

Indications of Student Distress

  1. Behavioural Changes
  2. Physical Changes
  3. Personality Changes
  4. Safety-Risk Behaviors
  5. Other Changes

1. Behavioural Changes

  • Repeated absences from class
  • Missed assignments and/or appointments
  • Repeated requests for special accommodation (e.g., extensions on assignments)
  • Themes in works which reflect despair, hopelessness, isolation, violence, or rage
  • Disorganized or erratic performance
  • Direct statements indicating a personal or family problem

2. Physical Changes

  • Unkempt appearance, with a lack of personal hygiene
  • Appearance of excessive fatigue, lack of sleep
  • Indications of substance abuse (e.g., smelling of alcohol or marijuana)

3. Personality Changes

  • Sudden change in attitude (e.g., withdrawal, becoming unusually quiet, exhibiting times of unprovoked anger or hostility)
  • Anxiety
  • Ongoing expressions of sadness or tearfulness, emotional flatness
  • Outbursts in class or in one-on-one interaction

4. Safety-risk Behaviours

  • Appearing depressed or withdrawn
  • Expressions of despair, hopelessness, helplessness
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Self-injurious behaviours (e.g., cutting)
  • Threats against others
  • Poor impulse control
  • Any written note, artwork, or verbal statement which has a sense of finality or suicidality to it

5. Other Changes

  • Bereavement (death of significant person) or loss (ending of relationship, failure in class)
  • Other students or peers expressing concern for the student
  • Your own sense that something is wrong

[Image by Benjamin Linh VU | CC BY-SA 2.0]

[Image by Benjamin Linh VU | CC BY-SA 2.0]

Supporting and Referring a Student in Distress

A student may approach you to talk, or you may bring up the subject with the student after class if the student appears to be in noticeable distress.

If a student has not attended your class for a long period of time (and especially in small group classes) and you have not otherwise heard from them, you may wish to email the student to check if all is well and offer to set up a phone or in-person meeting to chat. Alternatively, you may prefer to contact a relevant member of Student Services to inform them of the student’s extended absence in the event that they may wish to reach out to the student.

The following list of suggestions for conducting a supportive discussion with a student is primarily excerpted from the University of Michigan’s Adult Psychological Clinic Resources (available HERE), with adaptations from the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty and Staff Resource on Mental Health (available HERE).

Conducting  a Support Meeting with a Student – Things To Do:

  • ENSURE PRIVACY when you talk by meeting in a private setting, and choose a time when you can fully FOCUS on talking with the student without interruptions. You may ask a student if they might stay after class, or contact the student to set up a time to talk.
  • If possible, GATHER INFORMATION about RESOURCES before you intervene. Knowing where to refer a student in distress will save time and increase the student’s confidence in you. You can find out about your campus-specific resources HERE.
  • PROTECT your own and the student’s SAFETY. If you are concerned about your safety or about anyone’s behavior being misinterpreted, ask your supervisor or a trusted colleague to join you and explain why to the student. However, this can make the experience more intimidating and uncomfortable for the student, so use your judgment regarding whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
  • EXPRESS CONCERN in SPECIFIC, nonjudgmental, BEHAVIORAL terms (“I noticed you haven’t been to class in three weeks,” rather than: “Where have you been lately?”). Be honest, direct, and gentle. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
  • LISTEN to the student in a sensitive, focused, non-threatening way. Allow time for the student to express his or her thoughts and feelings.
  • RESPECT and make an effort to UNDERSTAND the student’s value system and culture. Keep in mind that their frame of reference may be very different from your own regarding a wide range of issues including academic performance, interacting with authority figures, and handling emotional difficulties. Try to set aside your personal biases and be non-judgmental.
  • CLARIFY your understanding by asking questions. Try to determine what the student is really struggling with and what they need to deal with this situation.
  • DEMONSTRATE your understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has said. Try to include both the CONTENT (“So you are new to this campus…”) and the FEELINGS (“…and you are feeling overwhelmed.”)
  • When appropriate, NORMALIZE their behaviors and feelings (“Many students feel overwhelmed during their first term on campus.” “Other students have found that talking to a counselor helped them adjust more quickly.”)
  • COMMUNICATE HOPE by assuring the student that there are always options, and things tend to look different with time.
  • RECOMMEND RESOURCES appropriate to the problem. You can find a list of your campus-specific resources HERE or contact your Student Dean – they may have access to a referral sheet or other referral material. Normalize the referral process – remind the student that using resources is a sign of strength and courage, not weakness or failure.
    • If the student is open to it, you may send a quick email to the referring agency while the student is in your office, letting them know that the student requires assistance and providing the student’s contact information.
  • MAINTAIN PROFESSIONALISM and be clear about what you can and cannot do.
  • FOLLOW UP in a reasonable length of time. Or, offer to keep the lines of communication open and encourage the student to get in touch if they like.
  • RECOGNIZE that the student may not immediately welcome or act upon your interventions, but you may plant a seed that blossoms later, and it is never wrong to communicate KINDNESS and CONCERN. Do not take it personally if your interventions or referrals are rejected.
  • CONSULT with other professionals about your concerns by contacting your Student Dean, campus counselling service, or another professional who has expertise in dealing with student distress. You can find a list of your campus-specific resources HERE.
    • If you are not comfortable dealing with a student directly, this may be the only step you take.
  • REMIND students that getting help with emotional problems often significantly improves their academic performance.
  • ASSURE students that they are not alone.

Conducting  a Support Meeting with a Student – Things to Avoid Doing:

  • DON’T judge, evaluate, or criticize, even if asked; usually this shuts down communication.
  • DON’T be defensive or personalize what the student is saying. Maintain an open, calm demeanour and continue to express your support for the student.
  • DON’T be a hero or savior; recognize the limits of your role and refer to other professionals – do not deal with a crisis alone.
  • DON’T give special consideration to a student unless you would do it for any student in a similar situation.
  • DON’T make promises you cannot, should not, or will not keep.
  • DON’T promise confidentiality in all circumstances; if the student or others are in danger, you will need to act. You can assure the student of your discretion and consideration for their privacy, however.
  • DON’T be afraid to intervene for fear you will say the wrong thing; saying nothing to a suffering person is almost always worse.

[Image originally uploaded by Josve05a| CC BY-SA 3.0]

[Image originally uploaded by Josve05a| CC BY-SA 3.0]

Responding to Emergent Situations

If a student tells you that he/she has harmed themselves or has an immediate suicide plan or is threatening you or anyone else, call 911 immediately.

If a student is expressing suicidal thoughts, appears very depressed or distressed or shows other highly concerning behaviours but does not indicate an immediate plan or can reassure you that he/she is “safe”, help the student contact a crisis line, or check to see if you can refer the student to your campus’ counselling service for immediate attention.

A list of campus-specific crisis resources is available HERE.

Responding if a Student Seeks Academic Accommodations

A student may approach you to discuss an academic accommodation they wish to receive or have received via Student Deans, Accessibility Services or similar. This may include extensions, make-up exams, test or exam accommodations, computerized note-taking or the services of a note-taker, alternate format materials, sign language or other accommodations. How might you respond?

  • If the student has not yet spoken to Academic Accommodations:
    • You should check with your Faculty to see what the policies involving granting academic accommodation are. Some universities allow professors to grant accommodations directly, many others require students to go through another channel.
    • View your Faculty-specific academic accommodation policies HERE, or speak to the relevant parties at your school.
  • If the student has already spoken to Academic Accommodations and has been granted accommodations:
    • Express your willingness and openness to work with them to implement the accommodations if that is within the scope of your role at your law school. Remember there is a duty to accommodate.
    • Keep the student’s registration and accommodation confidential. Do not discuss or refer to a student’s disability in public, in class, or without permission, to other faculty.
    • Avoid asking the student about their diagnosis; focus on the impact of the disability on their learning.

Creating a Supportive Learning Environment for All Students

Faculty can contribute significantly to the health of the community by conducting lectures and classes that are respectful of the diversity of student experiences, and encouraging a positive classroom environment. These approaches not only support mental health on a regular basis, they also assist in creating a safe environment where students from all backgrounds may feel more comfortable learning and participating.

You may consider adopting one or more of the following practices:

  • Clarify Your Expectations: Make your expectations and evaluation criteria as clear as possible; deliver feedback on performance in a constructive manner.
  • Be Available for Consultation: Make yourself available for discussion during regular office hours and through contact by telephone and email. In doing so, approach each student with an open mind about his/her strengths and abilities. Be respectful in dialogue.
  • During High-Stress Periods, Remind Students Help is Available: Around tests and evaluations, remind students of the resources that are available to support them. Note that it is okay to need help and students should not be ashamed to seek it if necessary.
    • Encourage them to speak to Accessibility Services or a Student Dean, if necessary and available at your university.
    • You can review the specific resources available at your school here: My School’s Resources.
  • Include a Syllabus Statement of Support or Referral: Include a statement in your syllabus referring students to key resources. Here is the sample wording from the University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law’s syllabus statement:
    • Students who are in emotional/mental distress should refer to Mental Health@Western: a complete list of options about how to obtain help. Mysty Clapton, Assistant Dean (Student Services) is available to help students identify resources that may be of assistance to them.”
    • You may refer students to, which includes school-specific resources, or you can refer them directly to your school’s resources.
  • Trigger Warnings: Many courses contain subject matter that can be triggering for some students, i.e. it may serve as a strong and damaging reminder of a traumatic event. However, the inclusion of these topics can also contribute significantly to the course material. Although trigger warnings can be controversial, you may consider proceeding with sensitivity and including a form of warning when discussing this type of subject matter.
    • This concept of a “trigger” emerges from research on post-traumatic stress disorders.
    • Triggering subjects may include racial or gendered forms of violence, self-harm, suicide, forms of abuse, torture, military engagement, and so on.
    • Consider issuing a brief warning to the class to proceed with sensitivity in discussion before engaging in a unit on challenging material, or discussions around these types of topics. You may also avoid cold-calling students on cases involving triggering subjects. These practices foster a safe, respectful environment for all, and allow those particularly affected students to engage or disengage as necessary.
    • Here’s a verbal example: “Our discussion of consent and the related cases may be distressing to some, as the topic of sexual assault will come up. Let’s try to be mindful that some students may find this material especially difficult, and be respectful and sensitive as we engage with the material”.
  • For two interesting articles on the debate over trigger warnings and emerging practices in law schools, see:
  • For research and best practices on teaching sensitive topics, see Rebecca M. Hayes, Kate Luther, and Susan Caringella, Teaching Criminology at the Intersection: a How-to Guide for Teaching about Gender, Race, Class and Sexuality, Routledge: 2014. Chapter on Research on Teaching Sensitive Topics excerpted HERE.


[Image by Giulia Forsythe for Centre for Applied Special Technology| CC BY 2.0] Universal Design for Learning is an educational framework based on cognitive science and educational research that aims to create a flexible learning environment which accommodates a variety of learning differences. For an introduction, see this 2012 Ryerson University brief.

A Final Thought: Why Do Some Students Wait Until the Last Minute To Seek Help?

As an educator, mental health issues can present challenges to your perception of your course’s academic integrity or your personal standards for performance. These perceptions can contribute to the stigma of mental health issues. However, they are also understandable. Given that students have access to the course syllabus and timelines and may even have received information about accommodations, you may wonder why some students seek help very late or not at all.

Students may have a number of concerns about seeking help:

  • Releasing this personal information may result in further disclosure, being labelled and judged, discrimination or other personal and professional consequences. This may become especially problematic for students considering further studies, who may worry about not being able to obtain academic recommendations.
  • Students may have personal stigmas against mental health issues, and may be in denial about the possibility that they themselves are struggling, until the situation becomes too dire to ignore.
  • Some mental illnesses may make it difficult or impossible for a student to identify his or her own needs. The symptoms of some mental illnesses can very seriously impact a student’ judgment or personal agency. This is why institutions are encouraged to, and in some cases required to, take an active role.
  • For example: a third-year university student begins to exhibit erratic behaviour. Although she has been a successful student to date, she begins missing classes and she fails to submit her coursework on time. In the middle of a lecture, she suddenly starts shouting inexplicably. The university professor arranges to meet with the student after class to inquire into the student’s situation. As a result of this discussion, the professor contacts the university’s Office for Students with Disabilities. A meeting is arranged and the student is offered assistance. The university helps arrange counselling and support services for the student who, ultimately, is diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Office for Students with Disabilities then works with the student and her professors to arrange academic accommodations. (Excerpted from the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Guidelines on accessible education.)
  • Many students are fiercely independent and do not want to ask for help unless the severity of the situation leaves them no choice. This can be especially true of law students, who are older than undergraduates, and may not be used to asking for help or may not have had to do so in the past.
  • Students may not begin the term requiring assistance but as the work accumulates, the stress can cause their mental health to change dramatically within a short period of time. In the middle of the distress, the student may not be in a good position to find and seek help.
  • Difficulty accessing academic accommodations in the past may lead the student to feel that it is pointless to try and seek accommodation now.

This is not an exhaustive list; the reasons may be more personal, or may be a combination of factors. The point is that students often struggle with taking the first steps, and therefore faculty are encouraged to a) be receptive and understanding if and when students finally do reach out for help, and b) consider taking a more proactive role in supporting students and assisting other on-campus resources to support students in distress.