All academic staff with teaching responsibilities are expected to take an interest in their students’ learning and to provide associated ‘pastoral care’. However, unless you have specific responsibilities for student-advising (in which case you will likely receive specialist training), it is generally not your role to counsel distressed students or support students to manage emotional or psychological difficulties. Students who may be experiencing difficulties are best referred to mental health and associated professional services for that support.

That said, mental health difficulties often impair a student’s ability to study effectively or complete their coursework. It IS therefore, within the academic teaching role to help students find strategies and support to manage the effects of mental health difficulties on their academic studies.

What is and isn’t your role in engaging with students in distress?

An experienced university counsellor offers advice on the role of academics in engaging with students who appear distressed or disclose sensitive personal information.

Hear from Dr Jenny English, Psychologist and Academic Work Coach.
Download a transcript

The Technical Stuff

As a general principle, the confidentiality of any sensitive information that a student discloses to you should be maintained.   However, a duty of care to prevent harm or injury (to the student or others) can over-ride confidentiality.

Maintaining confidentiality means protecting sensitive health information (personal or otherwise), and protecting the availability of that information to other people. You will not breach confidentiality if you:

  • Consult with relevant support services (e.g., an academic service) about a student’s circumstances (e.g., their academic performance and needs) with that student’s permission;
  • Consult with a relevant service without disclosing information that might make the student identifiable (e.g., contact details, name, location, gender, unusual details about the circumstances);
  • Discuss with a relevant service general supports offered by that service without including the student’s information.
You will breach confidentiality if you:

  • Discuss a student’s personal information or circumstances with a relative or work colleague, without that student’s permission;
  • Discuss a student’s personal information or circumstances with a relevant support service, without that student’s permission.