Supporting Students with Mental Health Challenges

Students at UAF, much like students enrolled in universities and colleges across the nation, are reporting more frequent and more intense experiences with mental health challenges. You may be noticing that students are demonstrating higher levels of stress or reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety  at rates you’ve not previously seen in your classrooms. You may also be wondering what you can do to help support these students, particularly those with whom you have a virtual-only relationship. One of the most significant ways you can offer support to a student, in-person or remote, is to be aware of the signs and symptoms of developing and/or worsening mental health challenges and know how to connect the student with appropriate resources.  Early intervention can be crucial to helping students recover from mental health challenges before cascading consequences occur and worsen their emotional state. While early intervention is key, it is also never too late to connect a student to mental health services! This Teaching Tip will focus on how the UAF Student Health and Counseling Center (SHCC) can be used as a resource for supporting students with mental health challenges.

An illustration of people cultivating a stylized brain as if it were a plant.

Signs and symptoms of mental health challenges can include (but are not limited to!):

Changes in behavior

  • No longer engaging in class or diminished participation in class activities
  • Frequently missed and/or late assignments
  • Consistently arriving to class late when usually on-time, or suddenly  missing class altogether
  • Observable difficulty with concentration or focus

Changes in appearance

  • Looking disheveled or more unkempt than usual
  • Noticeable changes in hygiene 
  • Cuts or bruises in various stages of healing
  • Looking exhausted 
  • Lacking facial expressions or making facial expressions that do not match the circumstances

Expressions of emotional distress

  • Talking about death and dying frequently
  • Disclosing or displaying  feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and/or worry/panic
  • Demonstrating agitated, erratic, or aggressive behaviors
  • Frequent engagement in self-blame/self-criticism

What should you do if you notice signs and symptoms of a mental health challenge?

  • If you feel comfortable to do so, find a private, non-confrontational moment to gently let the student know you are developing concern for their wellbeing. You might ask the student how you can help and inquire if they are receiving mental health support from a professional. 
  • Encourage the student to reach out for professional help and normalize the process of seeking therapeutic support for mental health challenges.
    • Provide the student with the phone number for UAF SHCC: (907) 474-7043
    • Provide the student with contact information for community mental health resources (
  • Encourage the student to rely on healthy self-coping techniques such as walking, enjoying nature, spending time with friends, cooking, exercising, reading, watching favorite movies, spending time with family, writing, singing, dancing, etc.
  • Encourage the student to join a support group to connect with peers experiencing similar challenges.
    • UAF SHCC offers ongoing groups throughout the year:
  • Continue to check-in with the student and provide ongoing support to an extent that feels appropriate and feasible for you.

What if you suspect a student is having suicidal thoughts?

  • Ask the student directly and clearly: “Are you having thoughts of dying by suicide?” or “Are you having thoughts of killing yourself?”
    • Asking clearly is important to avoid confusion, and asking the question directly can generate hope and establish a  meaningful connection for students struggling with suicidal ideation.
  • If the student says “yes,” you must connect that student with help. Call Student Health and Counseling without delay: (907) 474-7043.
  • If a student says they are having thoughts of dying by suicide and they also say that have a plan for how they would do so, this student requires emergency mental health help.
    • If you are on campus with the student, walk the student to SHCC or call SHCC immediately. If it is after hours or you are not on campus, call UAF PD or 911. 
    • Stay with the student until help arrives, if it is safe to do so. If this scenario takes place virtually, remain connected with the student via zoom or on the telephone. 
    • Be sure to communicate to emergency responders that the student is experiencing a mental health emergency.
  • If you are not sure what constitutes an emergency or requires immediate help, you can reference this guide.

How can the Student Health and Counseling Center be a resource for you?

  • Consultation hours occur daily from 1-2PM. Counselors are available during this time each day to see clients in crisis and to provide space for parents of UAF students, faculty members, and staff members who may be looking for some guidance on how to move forward with a student experiencing a mental health challenge. Please do not hesitate to call SHCC if you are feeling concerned about a student and you are unsure of how to proceed. 
  • SHCC’s phone number is also a 24/7 crisis line. Provide our number to students and inform them that they can call at any time. If they call during business hours, they will be appropriately connected  with a mental health counselor. If a student calls after-hours they will be connected to a mental health professional who is trained to manage crisis situations.
  • SHCC offers virtual appointments to students who live in rural Alaska and for local students who feel most comfortable connecting online. Appointments can also take place over the telephone for students with limited internet access or, again, for students who feel more comfortable with that modality.
  • If a student from out-of-state is in crisis, please connect them with SHCC. We will not turn away out-of-state students in crisis. While we cannot provide therapy for these students due to licensing laws, we will work with students to connect them to appropriate resources in their community and we will provide support in the meantime. Please note: SHCC has counselors who are licensed in other states. It is worthwhile to check in with SHCC to see if there is a counselor eligible to treat an out-of-state student. 
  • SHCC can also help students with medication management for various diagnoses. SHCC counselors can work closely with SHCC physician, Dr. Kathy Pena, MD, to ensure collaborative care for students who require medication for mental health challenges.

Mental Health First Aid Training

  • SHCC offers monthly Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. MHFA is open to all UAF faculty, staff, and students.
  • MHFA  is an international program designed to teach individuals how to notice early, worsening, and crisis-level signs and symptoms of mental health challenges. This course provides attendees with the tools necessary for effectively helping students with mental health challenges, including those struggling with suicidal thought and behaviors.
  • There are two MHFA courses left in the spring semester, and registration is open!
    • April 13 – 14, from 9AM – 1PM each day, in-person at UAF
    • May 4 – 5, from 9AM – 1PM each day, virtually delivered (a great option for rurally-located or out-of-state individuals!) 
  • Learn more and to register.

SHCC Contact Info:
24/7 Phone Number: (907) 474-7043
Counseling Location (temporary): Gruening Building, Suite 215
Medical Location (temporary): Arctic Health and Research Building, Suite 105

Nikki Bard

Supporting Students with Mental Health Challenges

Nikki Baird is a Mental Health Counselor at UAF’s Student Health and Counseling Center. She serves as the embedded counselor for Student Support Services, a comprehensive advising organization that serves first generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with documented disabilities. Nikki received her M.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from UAF in 2021 and is currently working towards LPC licensure. Nikki is a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor and teaches monthly MHFA courses to UAF faculty, students, and staff.

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