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Helping students cope

From the Spring 2011 Parent Newsletter

What if my student is just not one to ask for help? If he does ask one person and it’s not the right one, he will simply stop, figuring ‘This is not going to work.’

The University offers students numerous support and service options. Sometimes the sheer number of options can be a barrier. Students don't know where to start. Let's use my area, counseling and mental health, as an example. Students might start at University Counseling & Consulting Services, Boynton Mental Health Service, Housing & Residential Life, International Student and Scholar Services, Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence, or several other campus offices. These offices all communicate together on the Provost's Committee for Mental Health (PCMC), which allows its members to check the pulse for mental health needs of students and to respond in a coordinated way.

Recent PCMC meetings have highlighted a trend: this is a time of unprecedented student demand for development support and services. This is related to stresses such as the economy, life balance demands, and performance expectations.

There's also an increased awareness and acceptance of the concept of seeking help with career and personal issues. This is all welcome news. It means students are accessing services developed to assist them and that the longstanding stigma of seeking support has lost some of its bite. In practice, however, it often means that access may become more challenging. This invites frustration or discouragement. So what can be done?

Three angles of response

  1. University's response
    Student support and service offices on campus maintain a strong commitment to their mission. Current trends, however, are challenging staff to step back and assess how we are delivering these services and whether they should be modified to better meet student needs. These efforts are being undertaken both within University offices and between them (for example, through the PCMC). While efforts may disrupt established approaches, they offer opportunities for creative change. In some cases, voices from different resources are documenting where additional resources and staffing may be needed.
  2. Students' response
    As I've written previously, the Student Development Outcomes defined by the University's Office for Student Affairs offer guidance for students. Specifically, the outcomes of independence/interdependence, resiliency, and tolerance of ambiguity stand out here. Though no support office seeks to impede a student's efforts to reach out for assistance, obstacles do occur, such as a waiting list for service. (This is not unique to the University. It is increasingly common to wait a month or longer for services in the community.) Students' experiences on campus prepare them for life as an adult. There are valuable competencies to be mastered, such as self-awareness and the appropriate assertiveness in explaining clearly what is needed. Students learn to cope with setbacks, remain engaged in seeking solutions, and work with others to identify alternate options.
  3. Parents' response
    It's increasingly popular for adults to consult a "life coach" for guidance in managing life's complexities. Life coaches aren't able to eliminate the discomfort of difficult life circumstances, but they do help empower individuals by offering options that make coping more likely. Parents make great life coaches for their students, and the service is usually free. Be the life coach for your son or daughter. Be available, offer encouragement, and reinforce the importance of developing the competencies noted above.

Our collective efforts can help

We live in stressful, uncertain times. Students see and feel this in their campus experiences. Until gentler winds blow, it will take our collective, interdependent efforts to help students cope and continue moving forward.

Dr. Scott Slattery
Dr. Scott Slattery, University Counseling & Consulting Services, addresses questions from parents of University of Minnesota students. He may be reached at 612-625-4568 or slatt008@umn.edu.