The Disappearing Student: How We Can Support Students Battling Depression and Anxiety

by Lauren S. Cardon, Department of English

A familiar situation?

Many of us have encountered students who follow a certain pattern: they begin the semester as full participants in the class, turning in assignments on time, and then all of a sudden disappear. They may trickle off­­ — missing a class here and there first — or they may simply fall off the radar. Then, after missing most of the semester, they resurface, explain they’ve been struggling with something personal, and ask if they can “make up all the work.”

person sitting alone in a long, empty hallway

I’ve noticed, in personal interactions and on social media, a shift in how my peers respond to these students. Last year, a friend on Facebook related how he used to interpret students who followed this pattern: assuming they’re slackers, or that they’re partying too hard the night before to make it to class, or that they’re entitled — thinking they don’t have to follow attendance and lateness policies. Now, my friend explained, he has a better sense of how many students struggle with mental health issues on campus. The “drop off the radar” phenomenon is one of the most telling signs.

Catherine Savini describes a similar response in a Chronicle piece titled “Are You Being Rigorous or Just Intolerant?” She relates how students would sit in her class wearing earbuds, or a student would suddenly leave the room in the middle of an assignment, and how she would make assumptions based on her own “lens of previous experience.” In reality, she learned, some students on pain medication as well as students with ADHD wear earbuds because the music in the background helps them focus. The student who left the room, she learned, was having a panic attack.

One reason so many of us see patterns of seemingly inattentive or indifferent behavior from students is that so many of our students — and college students worldwide — suffer from mental health issues. A 2018 study of 14,000 students showed that 35% reported that they struggle with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Other surveys have shown similar results, and in some cases report even higher percentages of students suffering from overwhelming anxiety.

UA does have some resources and support services to offer students, many of which are listed on the Counseling Center website. Students with diagnosed mental health issues can also register with ODS, which in turn will inform the students’ professors and assist in setting up arrangements for modified attendance and other accommodations.

But what can the faculty do? We’re not counselors, after all, and we can’t simply pass a student who hasn’t shown up or done the work all semester.

Show support from day one.

Savini’s article mentioned above and a recent Faculty Focus article offer some strategies professors can use to show support for their students without stepping into the role of counselors. One recommendation is to let students know on the first day of class (and perhaps on the syllabus) that we as faculty support students with mental health issues and can connect them with the right resources if they find themselves struggling during the semester.

Reach out to your student and check in.

Another suggestion — one I have found valuable personally — is to reach out when we see a student starting to fall off the radar. Sending a short email, framed in a positive way, can make that student feel seen and supported. In past semesters, I have noticed students make a resurgent effort to attend class and get caught up after one of these check-ins. In all cases, they have thanked me for reaching out.

When sending an email, be extremely sensitive to both the content and the tone: both should be positive. Instead of saying, “Why have you missed the past four classes? You need to show up or you’ll fail the course,” you might say, “I wanted to check in with you because I’ve noticed you haven’t been attending recently. Please feel free to come by my office hours if you want to talk or if you need help getting caught up.”

Have a discussion about accommodations, and listen to your student’s needs.

When a student is registered with ODS, I’ve found it valuable to have a discussion with the student about the Attendance Modification Agreement, and to complete the document together. If a class allows for three absences as part of its attendance policy, you might ask the student (instead of telling them) how many absences they think would accommodate their needs. In my experience, student suggestions have always been reasonable, but if not, you can always frame your suggestion in terms of a compromise.

Know when you have to say no… but do it with compassion.

Sometimes, as a University of Washington DO-IT resource points out, students request accommodations that go beyond what’s reasonable or fair to other students — for example, if “making the accommodation means making a substantial change in an essential element of the curriculum” or “would require a substantial alteration in the manner in which educational opportunities are provided.” If, for example, you teach a class that involves daily active learning exercises designed to help students achieve a learning objective, and a student has missed 75% of the class, it may be unreasonable for the student to expect to pass the class.

As instructors who wish to support our students, we can feel guilty or intolerant when we have to say no to a student struggling with mental illness. When in doubt, it can be helpful to consult with a department chair or director of undergraduate studies, just to get another opinion. And, of course, deliver any disappointing news to the student with compassion and encouragement.

Stay informed.

As faculty, it’s up to us to determine how much we want to support our students in these struggles. At the very least, however, it’s valuable both for us and our students to ensure we understand and comply with any accommodations requests with ODS, and to stay informed of support services and counseling resources on campus.


Lauren Cardon is an Associate Professor in the Department of English. She recently published “A Guide to Managing Class Discussion in a Tense Atmosphere” on the Faculty Blog.