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How Faculty can Help: Providing Support During Distressing Times

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

While we always hope and strive for a positive learning community for our students at UVa, there are times when events, whether personal, at the university, or at a national or global level, disrupt the lives of our students and their sense of community, as well as our own. While these events can negatively impact our students’ ability to focus on academics, they can also create opportunities to engage in meaningful and honest discussions about difficult and important topics. Faculty’s willingness to reach out, and connect can help students feel supported and also learn about what it means to be human and a thinking, caring citizen.

As faculty members, you can help provide a space for students to process and make sense of challenging experiences. Below you will find important considerations in engaging and supporting students during distressing times.

  • Be gentle. It is important for all of us to acknowledge that these are hard and complex conversations. A wide range of feelings and experiences may be triggered for many different reasons and we need to be gentle with ourselves and each other as we learn to navigate these feelings together.
  • Mixed feelings are to be expected. Depending on the situation, students may experience many different types of feelings including confusion, sadness, anger, numbness, and fear just to name a few. Some may not feel impacted at all. It might be helpful to remind yourself and your students that there is not one right way to feel or react after a difficult event and that everyone’s process of making sense of it and managing it may look very different.
  • There could be changes in student functioning. Remember that reactions to experiences of personal and community trauma can lead to difficulties in academic performance or aspects of daily functioning.
  • Reach out to your students. A simple recognition can go a long way. For example, sending an email acknowledging the recent events and possible impact on students and the community at large can help students feel seen, validated, and recognized. Similarly, simply acknowledging recent events at the beginning of a class and your recognition of its potential impact on students in a genuine way can help students feel that you care about them and what they are experiencing.
  • Consider opening up a space to talk. If you feel comfortable doing so, you may open up a conversation about recent events in your class or office hours. You do not have to be teaching a class related to the topic in order to do so. Since this could be a conversation that may be triggering for some or one that not everyone may want to participate in, you could state at the beginning of class that you will be saving the last 20 minutes of class or meeting for this conversation and make it optional. It could be helpful to spend time as a group generating ground rules to help create a safer space.
  • Check in with your students, especially if you notice that they seem distressed, distracted, withdrawn, or if you notice changes in their behavior. You might say something like, “I know there’s been a lot going on across Grounds and this is a stressful time in the semester, how have you been doing?” It is not always about having the “right” thing to say, but rather to show care, compassion, and empathy. If needed, guide the student to resources such as CAPS for additional support.
  • You are not expected to have all of the answers; in fact, none of us do. Instead students look to you as someone who can create a space where they can come together and ask or simply sit with their complex questions, concerns, and emotions. Making space for reflection can lead to learning from our students, just as much as they might learn from you.
  • Keep a routine. During times of high stress, it is very helpful is to help maintain a sense of routine. By sticking to the planned curriculum and the normal schedule, you help keep students grounded and assist them in taking a break from the stressors of what may be a difficult time in our community.
  • Use your resources. Remember that you have great resources available to you. If you would like to facilitate a dialogue in your classroom but you are not sure how, there is support for you. You may request a facilitator that has experience navigating these difficult topics if you believe this would be beneficial to your students. CAPS can help with such facilitations or can help connect you to other resources. CAPS and the Teaching Resource Center (TRC) can also provide consultation ahead of time to help you think through potential challenges even if you decide to facilitate on your own. CAPS and the TRC are also available to provide workshops for your department on approaching these topics with your students.


Providing Support Following Bias-motivated Incidents

  • We can expect a wide array of responses from students: feeling unsafe both physically and emotionally, feeling targeted, feeling invalidated, anger, sadness, confusion, hopelessness, as well as, a desire to come together as a community and speak out about injustice and fight for change, just to name a few.
  • Do not underestimate the collective impact of violence on a community. Whether students or other UVa community members were directly connected to the people involved in an incident or not, there can be a radiating effect throughout the community.
  • Academic performance may be impacted. We know that when students feel afraid or unsafe, their ability to take in and process information is compromised. Providing support for our students during times like this is both about being compassionate and responsive figures and mentors, and about creating safe spaces where we can maximize learning for all of our students.
  • It is often more than about one incident. Bias-motivated incidents, on a small or a large scale, can highlight or exacerbate already existing negative feelings or doubts surrounding a student’s sense of belonging, capability, and safety within the university. Understanding this can help us start to make sense of the compounding impact of discrimination and marginalization over time.
  • Acknowledging the impact can go a long way. For many underrepresented students, their experience at a university can fluctuate between feeling singled out, tokenized, or as if they have to represent their whole group, to feeling completely invisible. Reaching out to students and acknowledging the impact of these experiences, even if it is just by email, can help students feel seen, validated, and have a more supportive experience of the university community.
  • Be an ally, whatever that looks like for you. We can all play a role in helping empower our students and our community to stand for values of social justice, to be strong allies for each other, and to continue to help make UVa the kind of safe and more inclusive community where everyone can thrive.
  • Listen to students. More ideas and recommendations as voiced by a group of UVa students, can be found in this open letter: What We Need From UVA Faculty.


Addressing Concerns around Sexual Assault

  • Be mindful. Remember that conversations about sexual assault in general can be triggering for individuals – faculty/staff colleagues and students alike – who have had these experiences themselves or who know those who have. It is important not to shut down the conversation since raising awareness is vital to sexual assault prevention; however, we also want to be mindful not to unintentionally have a negative impact on those who have been in some way affected by sexual assault.
  • Guide students to resources. If you are having a supportive conversation with a student and you find that she or he is having an emotionally intense reaction, it is best to refrain from asking probing questions such as “What are you feeling?” or “Were you ever assaulted?”. Rather, gently guide them to a conversation about resources (“Are you getting support from your friends or family?”) and/or make suggestions about resources (“What do you think about walking over to CAPS together?”). This helpful infographic gives information about resources available following a sexual assault: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: What Students Need to Know
  • Important things to keep in mind if conversations about sexual assault are initiated:
    • Classrooms or large groups that are gathered for other purposes can be difficult places to start conversations about sexual assault because it is impossible to assess whether or not individuals feel able, ready, or willing to talk about topics that can be personally triggering. If students want to talk about sexual assault issues, you can validate their desire to make sense of such difficult issues and assist them in finding safe spaces to dialogue. If you feel comfortable and able to facilitate such a conversation in the classroom, perhaps suggest saving the last 20 minutes for those who want to stay to talk about it. This gives students a choice to participate or not.
    • There are many different ways people respond to trauma. We have to be careful to not make assumptions about what people may be feeling, what we think they could have or should have done, or what their experience was actually like.
    • Remember there are many complex reasons why people choose to report or not report sexual assault. While we sometimes imagine what we might have done in a particular situation, we may never know what it would actually feel like until we are in it. With compassion and empathy, we can honor the decisions that each individual makes based on what they felt was the best decision for them and their wellbeing. It is especially important to be mindful not to suggest that someone should have or needed to respond differently following a trauma. We want to direct our energy toward creating systemic and cultural change as a community to prevent sexual assault, and not unintentionally place responsibility or blame on victims.
    • Know what your role is. Make sure to review information about being a Responsible versus a Confidential Employee. Most employees who are not practicing in a health or mental health setting are considered to be Responsible and are required to make reports about sexual assault to the Title IX Coordinator. Learn more about your role, requirements, and about resources by going to this website: Just Report It.
    • Keep a short-term and a long-term view. Many members of our community feel a sense of urgency to resolve all sexual assault issues immediately. Real change will happen over a series of conversations, collaborations, partnerships, and intentional planning. Let’s give ourselves permission to both address the immediate concerns and feelings, while knowing that our longer-term commitment to enduring change will be even more meaningful over time.
    • Be aware of the resources available to studentsThese include CAPS, the Women’s Center, and student groups with a sexual assault prevention focus such as “One Less” “One in Four,” the Peer Health Educators, and the “Sexual Assault Prevention Council.” You may refer students to any of these advocacy, prevention, and education groups at any time, or refer to Not on Our Grounds website with more information and contacts for each.

    Suicide Awareness

    • Be aware of warning signs. We cannot “prevent” all suicides from happening, but we can be attentive to warning signs. Students who attempt suicide often communicate some signs that they are considering suicide. This mnemonic may be helpful in remembering some of these signs: “IS PATH WARM.”
      I Ideation: Listen for any evidence of suicidal thoughts/ideation. Examples include references to “leaving” or wanting to be “gone.” If there is indication that the student may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, ask him/her directly about suicidal thinking (see “Interventions” below).
      S Substance Abuse: Be aware that use of recreational substances, including alcohol (in combination with thoughts of suicide), is associated with higher risk for attempted suicide.
      P Purposelessness: Loss of “drive” or decreased sense of meaning in a student’s endeavors can be cause for concern.
      A Anxiety: The presence of anxiety in combination with depression can put a student at higher risk for a suicide attempt.
      T Trapped: If a student feels that he or she has no good options for resolving a crisis, he or she may be more susceptible to suicidal thinking.
      H Hopelessness: Lack of hope that circumstances can improve is one of the strongest correlates of suicide attempts.
      W Withdrawal: Pulling back from friendships or social interactions is reason for concern.
      A Anger: Signs of agitation or anger are more evidence that a student may be at risk.
      R Recklessness: Impulsive behavior (or speech) are more reasons for concern.
      M Mood Changes: Any emotional change from what is typical can put a student at higher risk.
    • If you are concerned about a student:
      • Engage the student by expressing care and asking about his or her well-being. Relate any concerns directly to the student: “I’m worried about you. You seem down today. How are you doing?”
      • When in doubt, do not wait to ask the question, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” If the answer is “yes” or you sense hesitation, walk the student to CAPS.
      • Make a referral. If you are concerned about a student, err on the side of making a referral to CAPS. There is no concern too small for a referral to CAPS.
      • Utilize resources on Grounds. If you are unsure how to approach a student or what to do, you can call CAPS for consultation at any time. A number of academic and administrative supports also are available for students who are dealing with mental health issues, including the Office of the Dean of Students (434-924-7133).
      • Follow up with the student. Checking in with a student in the days and weeks following your initial inquiry is one of the most effective ways to show care and support.
      • Participate in a training. Please consider having CAPS provide a suicide awareness training session for your department or area.

    *As of July 1, 2015, Virginia state law requires faculty and staff to notify Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) when a student exhibits suicidal tendencies or behavior. If you have any concerns that a student may be suicidal, notify CAPS immediately.

    For consultation around any of these topics and support for you and your students contact CAPS:
    Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
    Elson Student Health on the corner of Brandon and JPA
    434-243-5150 Daytime
    434-972-7004 After-hours emergency line
    Counseling Psychological Services CAPS

    To request an outreach program or training for your department or to partner with CAPS please contact Nicole Fischer, CAPS Assistant Director for Outreach, at (434) 243-5150 or . Or visit CAPS Outreach and Prevention