How to help my abused student?
September 15, 2011 10:13 AM   Subscribe

One of my university students is being physically, mentally and emotionally abused by their parents and has asked me for help. What can/should I do as their teacher?

I am a Westerner teaching at a university in Japan. About two months ago a 20-year-old (legally an adult) female student spoke with me confidentially about how her parents abuse her and she asked me for help. Her parents do not live in Japan at the moment, but do return once or twice a year and she is financially dependent on them.
At first, I honestly explained that I want to help her, but do not know how and that she should see the university counselor.
She refused saying she felt more comfortable talking about it in English (she's a returnee - having spent most of her childhood in the US). Eventually, we found an English-speaking counselor that she's now seeing once a week, but since she's having to pay for it with her own money I don't know how long she can continue.
She has been frequently emailing me wanting to talk about everything and I've been trying to keep a balance of being supportive without letting her become too dependent on me or letting it take too much of my time.
However, the stress and amount of time I'm dealing with all of this started to affect my personal and professional life so I asked for help from my colleague and a friend who both advised me to quickly and cleanly cut her off as she is an adult and has to work it out for herself. This is impossible for me to do as she is fragile, already distrusts adults and besides, I see her twice a week at school. Most importantly, as a teacher and as a human being, I feel compelled to do what I can to help - I just have no idea how to answer her questions nor what kind of advice to give her.
Any ideas or words of support would be appreciated and as this is an anonymous posting (because I'm unsure of the legal liabilities here) write me at if you have any questions. I won't be able to post replies anonymously on AskMeFi so thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how strong an in-loco-parentis position Japanese universities take, even for adults, but I think I'd say something close to your colleague if maybe for different reasons.

You don't say that you're a trained and licensed therapist, so I'll assume you're not. But let's unpack that.

You aren't trained in what the appropriate standard of care might be, or what best resolves the underlying issues.

You are not trained in maintaining whatever level of professional distance and detachment is appropriate for your own health and welfare as well as the longer term health of your patient or client.

I don't mean this to be a jackass, but you also aren't trained in distinguishing between someone who has been abused and someone who is fabulating abuse or suffering some kind of psychotic break such that she imagines abuse that has not occurred.

I would think that, even apart from your concerns for yourself that you raise, you should think quite hard about your potential to do more harm than good here. You aren't her counselor or her therapist or even her teacher in the more all-encompassing surrogate-parent sense that elementary school teachers are. You're her professor, which means you've been trained into substantive expertise in whatever you specialize in, and that's all.

I would refer her to whatever mental health care is available from the university or the Japanese medical system. If necessary, I might try to speak to her therapist or just a therapist about what the best way for you to manage this would be, and how best you can explain to her that the sorts of serious trauma she's describing really need professional care, and that you cannot provide the professional care that she needs. Not won't, can't, because you do not know how, and you don't want to do anything that interferes with the treatment she needs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:34 AM on September 15, 2011 [10 favorites]

I echo ROU's response. If, however, you want to extend yourself above and beyond suggesting this young woman seek professional guidance, you could take it upon yourself to come up with a list of free or nearly free English speaking support services that exist for her in your area. Also, if money is a serious issue for her, you could purchase some self-help titles that deal with the subject, and there are many available. Google "parents abuse adult children" in Amazon -- there are more than a few.

Once you get your course of action together, I would then politely extricate myself from being any further involved in her personal drama for all the reasons ROU pointed out.
posted by zagyzebra at 10:54 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

tl;dr from my own comment:

You're experiencing a stressful situation dealing with someone else and their concerns. I don't really know how to deal with this, because I'm just a professor in an unrelated field. You should talk to a trained and licensed counselor or therapist, who has well-developed skills at helping people resolve interpersonal problems like this and effectively managing stressful situations.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:57 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm going to disagree with your colleague and with ROU_Xenophobe. Yes, there is a limit to the help you can provide. No, you aren't a therapist. No, you shouldn't act like you are one. BUT ...

Having survived abuse, and having struggled to make sense of the resources available for abuse survivors here in the US, I can say that every little bit of help ... helps. Even if you can only point your student to the appropriate services, that's huge.

So. Therapy, that's done, sort of, except for the cost problem. What is available in your area in Japan free of charge? Are there mental health services specifically geared toward abuse survivors? Here in New York, the teaching hospitals have trauma programs, DBT programs, CBT programs and other things that are designed especially for abuse survivors. And most of these programs are free, or free-ish. Does Japan have similar services? What about government-sponsored social services? Are there folks in your area who specialize in assisting people who need to establish independence from abusive parents? This is the kind of thing that (a) the university psychiatric services should know about, or at the very least (b) some of the professors who teach psych and/or social work would know about. Maybe you could make some discreet inquiries?

As someone who is Not A Therapist, you can't provide mental health care. But you can research available services and point your student to them. She's going to need more than a therapist, and more than any therapist. Trauma specialists are awesome, and they know shit that a lot of other therapists just ... don't. If you can find such folks, and give your student some names and phone numbers and URLs, you'll be doing her a much bigger favor than you may realize. Sometimes just finding the *right* services is super important. Trust me when I say that a social worker whose biggest go-to is the serenity prayer is not going to be particularly helpful to an abuse survivor. Your student needs someone with the right skill set, and you may be able to help her find that person.

Also, as always, I highly recommend the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman.
posted by brina at 11:09 AM on September 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

As her instructor, I think the best/only thing you can do is to get her in touch with appropriate resources. In addition to the counselor she is already seeing, are there other departments or offices on-campus that she could get in touch with, such as a women's resource center, domestic abuse center/hotline, peer advisors, housing search/placement services? There may be more offices available that can provide her with help, and I think it would be appropriate for you to get her in touch with them, even walk with her to set up a meeting.

You should not be providing counseling yourself. That is outside the scope of your job, qualifications, and relationship with the student. I don't know how effective it would be in the long run, and would be incredibly stressful on you.

I think the fact that you are willing to help her is such a huge thing, and is probably really helpful; even though my teaching experience is shiny and new, I've already had a number of students come to me with some personal/emotional concerns, and they always seemed relieved to know that I had quick access to on-campus resources for them to check out. Sometimes just navigating what is available to them is overwhelming.

So do that, but I don't think you should feel obligated to take this much further...
posted by vivid postcard at 11:50 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Any chance YOU can go to therapy? I think it would help you deal with her stuff a lot. It's incredibly hard to listen to this stuff without some tools and someone else to listen to you talk about it.

Also, is this student having a hard time because she's half western, too? It would be very hard form me (as a westerner) to have a Japanese therapist. A Japanese-American one might be okay, but someone who doesn't have a similar perspective/societal norms as this student could be a bad fit.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:00 PM on September 15, 2011

Do you already know for sure that the campus counselor(s) do not speak English? I wonder if she inquired for help there, or just assumed that it wasn't an option. Perhaps you could inquire on her behalf.

Also it may be that the university counseling office is not just for students. It sound like you could use somebody to talk this out with who can help you with dealing with your feelings and setting professional boundaries in a way that doesn't feel callous or uncaring.
posted by tuesdayschild at 12:00 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

i would suggest that she reduce her financial dependence on her parents. get a job and live more independently, with roommates, and save money. if she is so worried about them when they aren't even there she could be have anxiety and could visit a psychiatrist. anything she can do to separate from her parents would be an improvement.

it must be strange to grow up in the US and find yourself in an abusive environment in Japan where attitudes towards abuse probably differ from ours. maybe she would enjoy studying in the US.
posted by skwint at 2:17 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

If she wants to seek help in English, why not point her to this site? Giving somebody tools that you've found helpful is a kindness, but it sounds as if you need to draw a line so that your helping her does not drain you.
posted by Scram at 4:34 PM on September 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

She needs to continue seeing a counselor for her mental health and wellbeing. I am surprised there are no free English-speaking counselors at her uni, but I know nothing about Japanese universities.

I would not be dealing with her abuse/psychology problems - as you've said, it's taking a toll on you - and that's best left to the professionals.

What you could do if you do not wish to let her fend for herself (and, really, that would be awful), is to be a role model/mentor. If possible, you agree to meet/talk to her only for an hour a week (or whatever you feel comfortable with) but it's a structured thing - it happens at the same time each week and you go for coffee or something. Encourage her to look for work so that she's financially independent of her parents. Be there in as an older adult who she can speak to (with appropriate boundaries) and perhaps model herself on. But it really shouldn't go beyond that because, yes, it will drain you too much.

Likewise, you need to make sure you schedule in some time for you.
posted by mleigh at 4:44 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know why, but this sounds very suspicious to me. She's already talking to a counselor about this, why would she need to talk in depth about it with you?

As a former female college student with major family problems who used to talk to a professor about it, and eventually a counselor, talking to the counselor should be enough. Unless she needs a new counselor who fits her better.

You mentioned there's an issue with money; could it be that she's looking for an opening to ask you to help support her? I would be careful of this girl.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 9:45 PM on September 15, 2011

As a former "returnee" who spoke better English than Japanese at one point in my life, at the risk of sounding callous, if this student understands Japanese well enough to live alone in Japan and attend a Japanese university, then she could probably find the help she needs in Japanese, if she really wanted to. If the school is an English-speaking one, like ICU or Temple or the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Sophia or some such school where the classes are conducted in English, then they should have the resource she needs. And since she's already seeing an English-speaking counselor, she should be discussing her concerns with the counselor, not you.

I agree with ROU_Xenophobe and your colleagues in that you should probably cut her off now since you've done everything you can already.
posted by misozaki at 10:17 PM on September 15, 2011

It's genuinely wonderful of you to step up and try to help your fellow human. Stop doing that now. This is one of those special situations where that's less good. Her family abuse stuff is far too much for you to take on. If you were this woman's best friend in the universe, it would still be too much for you to take on. I personally grew up in a terribly abusive home, and I know that some of my teachers and professors had a good idea what was going down. Years later - and yes, lots and lots of therapy, and generally mulling this over a probably unhealthy bit - I'm quite certain that there was nothing these people could have done. I've actually come to think that any serious attempt they could have made would have made things far worse for me. Her situation may be different, but that's not something you can or should try to figure out.

One note that I can't seem to supress here: what DID help me get through it was surprisingly little stuff. One of my favorite teachers picked up on a particularly grim point at home, grabbed my arms and said exactly this: "Really listen to me here. You sleep through my class. But I know you, I know who you are as a person, you're very tough, you're very smart, and I don't know where the hell your life will take you, or what you're gonna do, but I have absolute faith that you will be GREAT." And yes, that definitely looks Lifetime-Movie bad when typed out right now, but it had some major weight behind it in delivery, and that simple crumb of kindness actually got me through some very bad shit for YEARS. A few less notable others responded with the basic, and infinitely correct, "You definitely need to find someone to talk to about this". Which is both an unmistakable deflect away from you and your energy reserves (boundaries! Boundaries, woman*!), and conveniently, also the best help and advice you could possibly offer someone in this situation. If her current counselor isn't cutting it, then she needs to find someone else - but definitely someone that isn't you. Personally, I think just believing her, taking her claim seriously, and pointing her to appropriate help is the best possible response you can have here. And you know what? You seem to have done that already, so good on ya.

*I don't know why I think you're a woman, but I think you're a woman. If you're not, then I meant, "Boundaries! Boundaries, man!". English. It sucks for gender-neutral lingo.
posted by involution at 10:34 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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