How to help a depressed student
November 7, 2017 3:54 AM   Subscribe

I have a student who did his undergraduate project under my supervision. He is enthusiastic and very interested in my study taxon. He did a pretty good job on his thesis, and wanted to continue for his masters with me. But in between he had a sort of mental breakdown and now I have to figure out how best to help him.

The mental breakdown was triggered by drug use, and he is undergoing therapy for depression (he needed to be hospitalised). I have taken him on as a sort of technician because he didn't get into the masters program. I pay him a stipend. This money is very little, but since I work in a not so rich country, it's quite rare that I can support a technician. However, since then, he has been incredibly flaky, not turning up, or turning up late, or not doing things I've asked him to etc etc. I have had several discussions with him about what I expect, and he is contrite, but nothing changes. I sympathise with him and have given him lots of 'second' chances but my work is getting affected. One one hand, I don't want to let him go since this would probably cause a lot of mental stress, but I can't let it slide either. He intends to start his masters degree next year, and I worry that the added stress of the program will make his task so much harder.

Things I have tried: asked him to come and see me everyday; given him small easy tasks to get him back on track; pep talks; keep him involved in lab projects. I can respond to any questions in the comments, and I will be grateful for a way to approach this problem.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
We employ a lot of people with psychiatric impairments and the question of how to think about supervision and expectations always comes up. We try to think about this from a disability rights type perspective, which means that we have certain tasks that need to be done, and we engage with the employees about what accommodations they need to get the tasks done. If the accommodations are "reasonable" we try to meet them. If not, it's not a good fit.

Examples of accommodations we've made include giving people more time to do something, changing their workstation to a less noisy area with fewer distractions, having additional breaks, arranging for the employee to have someone to accompany them on some outreach jobs that might bring the person close to triggering environments, etc.

It's a struggle, but we always come back to focusing on performance in terms of meeting deadlines, showing up, and producing quality work.

I love that you're trying to help your former student out. But it's not going well, and it's going to end poorly unless he's able to turn it around.

I'd suggest you meet with him soon and have a very frank discussion about his performance and how you're going to have to let him go if he can't do better in meeting expectations on his deliverables. You should lay out some very specific expectations for this trial run - like I want three paragraphs written by the end of the day. You can ask for his ideas about what he might need from you to meet the deadline, but note that this is *not*a talk about his depression or other aspects of his impairment. It's about what you need (clear expectations), when you need it (timeliness), and what does he need to meet the very specific deadline.

You've been more than fair. If you keep accepting poor quality work and contrite excuses, ultimately you're not doing anyone any favors. Your work won't get done and he won't get the experience of producing high quality work.
posted by jasper411 at 8:41 AM on November 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

"Did his undgrad project..." He has graduated? "intends to start his master degree next year" - January, or Sept? "the money is very little" - to you or to him? Will loss of that money materially affect his life?

As much as I hate to say it, I think you gotta tell him "Come back when you can be reliable".
posted by at at 12:29 PM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

It feels like there's a roles/boundaries issue here, and you may do well to let his therapist help him get better. It sounds cold to say it's not your job to help him, but it's kind of also not what you know how to do and too big a project for a metafilter ask. My gut says the best thing you can do for him is just generally be kind and understanding, but maintain good boundaries.
posted by Smearcase at 12:58 PM on November 7, 2017

The tack I take with undergraduates is that I am willing to help them get connected with health resources and make reasonable accommodations, but ultimately it is their responsibility to manage their health issues. I try to destigmatize mental health, and emphasize that what I would be saying to them would be the same if they were coming in with an upper-respiratory infection that wasn’t being properly treated, or an injury that was preventing them completing their work. There is no shame in seeking professional medical help for any of these things, but if a student isn’t doing so, it isn’t really fair to you or to them to let them keep limping along without addressing their problems.
posted by BrashTech at 8:54 AM on November 8, 2017

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