Introverted, or in need of help?

I’ve recently been looking more at introversion, as something to recognize and support in classrooms.

Meanwhile, a serious incident 2 months ago at the college I work at has reminded us of mental illness among students, and the instructors’ role in recognizing it.

First, introversion is NOT a mental illness (an important distinction as it has nearly been classified as such). Introverted students don’t necessarily need our help, except to recognize their needs.

True mental illness can often first become apparent among young college-aged students for a number of reasons (stress, moving away  from home, new social circles). I’m talking about depression, severe anxiety, and other disorders that should be treated or managed.

Some instructors may see this as outside the scope of their duties, focusing purely on the academics or vocational skills. We have enough to do, after all, without trying to get to know each student in a few short months, and we are not their friends or therapists. Mental illness, however, can affect academic success and in very rare and extreme cases (as my colleagues and I were reminded) can affect the safety of others; these are both things I, and most instructors, do care about.

For a fresh student, 17 or 18 years old, newly thrust into college or university and perhaps moved away from home (maybe even a new country, language and culture) for the first time, instructors may be some of the only people they interact with on a regular basis.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we diagnose students, but we can ask questions, and remind students of the help that is available (in my case, counselling and health services are available on campus). Sometimes the symptoms are obvious enough, like a sudden change in behaviour or attendance. I know what to look for in those case, and I am lucky to have academic advisors who can deal with this in an obtuse fashion so as not alarm or embarass students if it really is nothing.

But the quiet student, who sits in the back of the class, never asks questions and prefers not to participate: are they just shy or anxious (I can try to involve them in ‘safe’ ways)? need their own time and space (introverted)? or are they struggling with mental illness that requires professional help?

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