Phillip Bode from Boise State's 303 Writing Center training course here.
In Volume 32, Number 10 of the Writing Lab Newsletter Mary Murray McDonald addresses the ways a consultant/tutor should handle writers who exhibit mental issues. In "Assessing and Responding to Clients with Severe Mental Disorders" she says she "spent much time talking with a counselor about these clients and decided to develop strategies using his advice, readings on these disorders, and our own observations." She recommends that the tutor/consultant direct the writer to the director of the writing center. How much this accomplishes is not stated other than it takes the distressed student out of the consultant/tutor's hands.
Murray notes that even though judging by appearance is not always ethical, it can be an early sign of a writer experiencing mental trauma, "one of the first clues that a student may have some severe mental difficulties that impact his or her ability to have a productive writing tutorial session is hygiene and overall appearance. While fashion and style can vary vastly on a campus, cleanliness, appropriateness, and good grooming are fundamental clues to how well a client is doing generally."
McDonald also suggests that the tutor/consultant make strident efforts to keep the student focused exclusively on the task at hand, the paper. I think this makes sense in that it could stop the writer's mind from wandering off into troublesome areas. The consultant/tutor must be careful in addressing the issue with the writer. It is common for the person afflicted to become defensive about their ordeal and thus take your good intentions as an insult.
The only concern I would raise is that by doing so are you also intentionally ignoring the problem apparent to you.
I find McDonald's suggestions for dealing with the writer as a group within the writing center as fruitful. The use of a code word to signal to other tutors/consultants that you are dealing with an at-risk writer is smart and relieves pressure from the consultant/tutor the student was previously exclusively working with.
I have presented papers, whether they're short stories or essays with suicide as a literary device/theme or that may have hinted/suggested a disturbed mental state. However, my instructor never addressed it in her comments or discussed it with me. She likely wrote it off as me being a whiny, pansy teenager, which she was right to do so. But the point of that blurb is what gives the tutor/consultant authority/evidence that the student is struggling if it is in the paper but exhibits no visible symptoms in behavior? If a paper touches on these themes at what point should the consultant be alarmed? And do you take a different approach than the one McDonald suggests? Is the consultant/tutor more responsible in reporting suspicions of mental illness/trauma than a teacher/professor is? Or vice versa?
I have experienced and confronted mental illness within my family and other forms since I was twelve years old. I have witnessed severe episodes along with minor incidents. From my own experience the only assistance the person can provide is patience. I was dealing with personal relationships though. How should a tutor handle a person who is suggesting there are manic issues that they are not familiar with? Does the tutor even know how to recognize symptoms or signals of mental issues? How does the tutor/consultant determine if intervention is necessary?