Faculty struggles with ways to identify and help students in crises


Pitt faculty members are trying to figure out better ways to help students who struggle with mental illness.

Faculty Senate President Chris Bonneau has made multiple references in recent shared governance meetings to the tragic death in December of a student, who was found unresponsive on the roof of Lothrop Hall.

While the student’s official cause of death has yet to be determined, no foul play was suspected, according to The Pitt News.


  • For students dealing with an immediate emergency, contact the Pitt Police at 412-624-2121
  • Resolve Crisis network: 1-888-796-8226
  • CARS Care Manager: 412-624-5756 or PittCares@pitt.edu
  • Faculty further interested in learning how to assist people dealing with mental illness can attend the Mental Health First Aid USA Course. This two-day course will take place on 12:30-5 p.m. Feb. 7 from 12:30 to 5 p.m. and 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Feb 8. Lunch will be provided Thursday, and breakfast on Friday.

The incident led Bonneau to want to examine what resources are available for students, and how faculty can go about reaching out and informing students of them.

“You feel bad for the kid's family and the kid's friends, and you wonder ... is there anything we could do better?” Bonneau said.

This comes as multiple studies show a burgeoning mental health crisis among undergraduate and graduate students. A report released in November 2018 by the American Psychiatric Association found that from 2007 to 2017, mental health diagnoses among college students increased from 22 percent to 36 percent and treatment for mental illnesses increased from 19 percent to 34 percent.

So far, Bonneau and other faculty have floated a few ideas around to help. However, it could take more discussions to figure out what can be done, if anything.

At the Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs committee meeting on Jan. 22, Bonneau mentioned a program used at Pitt-Greensburg called Beacon, which connects faculty to advisors and resident assistants if they spot a problem.

He also has suggested at multiple meetings that syllabi could include information about access to the Counseling Center and other mental health resources, “just to signal to the students that we’re aware, we think this is important.”

Mohammed Rajaab Nadeem, the committee’s representative from the Student Government Board, said putting the information on syllabi would “signal to students that this is a priority to administration. I think that would go a long way.”

However, Educational Policies committee members said it could be tricky to implement any blanket policy asking professors to include this information on their syllabi.

Committee Chair Douglas Landsittel told Faculty Assembly on Feb. 5 that the committee stopped short of making a firm resolution or statement about including mental health resources on the syllabus.

Committee members felt like they didn’t have enough information about the different procedures and practices in each school, program and organizational unit to make the resolution.

“The EPC felt that something like a resolution or statement about a note on the syllabus or something to that effect would be premature, could introduce confusion and could even have a negative effect,” Landsittel said.

During the Jan. 28 EPC meeting, Landsittel read an email sent by Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Joe McCarthy to committee members that there would be a “couple of tricky bits to put in this kind of information on the syllabus.”

McCarthy mentioned that faculty could simply delete the information in a course web syllabus as an example of a “tricky bit.”

“We did make strides to get this kind of information more front and center for students by including links on the course web landing page last year,” McCarthy said in the email. “Having said that, I do agree with (Bonneau) that we need to get faculty more proactive on the front and getting the info to students is really only half the battle.”

McCarthy mentioned that the provost’s office has been looking at methods of “case management” where faculty can work with Student Affairs, the Care and Resource Support Team or other organizations to assist struggling students.

Former Senate President Frank Wilson said it can be difficult to catch students when they first start struggling.

“Students don’t always volunteer to you until it’s too late,” Wilson said.

Multiple members said large class sizes make it even more difficult for them to connect with students. Some mentioned that they could, however, see students who are not accessing course materials online and reach out to them. And some students don’t even read the syllabus, Wilson added.

John Stoner, a professor with the Department of History, added that student privacy laws and mandatory reporting requirements can make it difficult for both students and professors to effectively communicate.

“So, if a student seems to be at risk of harming themselves, I think there are all sorts of dispensations about you’re OK to do welfare checks, and call the police and all that stuff,’” Stoner said. “But if a student is just struggling on some lower level … I think it's a minefield for the reporting piece.”

He and Wilson added that some faculty may feel nervous about these conversations — that there may be an added expectation that they should also be therapists for their students.

Joanne Baird, an associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and member of the SAAA committee, said more work has to be done on helping a student on the front end.

“We’re stuck with a very reactive mode of handling students in crisis,” Baird said “And in some ways, this reactive model has some built in barriers with timing. So, we're waiting for a student to be in academic jeopardy, waiting for a student to disengage and then trying to figure out a way to get in touch with them. And there are some very real barriers to even getting in touch with somebody who can get in touch with them. We can do better — we’re Pitt.”

Bonneau said he understands why some faculty would be uncomfortable with this topic; however, there’s power in being a resource for students, or helping them find resources.

“If a student came into your office, into class, bleeding from a head wound, you wouldn't say, ‘Oh, I'm uncomfortable with blood … I'm not going to do anything about it,’ ” Bonneau said. “No, you call the doctor.

“I kind of view this as something similar. This is a medical condition. It's not a visible medical condition, in most cases. And so, it's more difficult to deal with. And it's obviously very sensitive. But I think part of why it's uncomfortable is because of the stigma that's historically surrounded it, and the more we can destigmatize things and open up the conversation, I think it makes us stronger as a University community.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.