writers exhibiting Mental Illness struggles

Hello Blog world,
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?


  1. Those are excellent questions, Phil. How does one recognize mental illness? How does one know if the student writing out violent scenes in his stories (Seung-Hui Cho) is so mentally unstable he is going to go on a killing spree? This is a tough issue for writing centers, that's for sure.

  2. It's true, any kind of workshop environment will give you a glimpse into someone's private thoughts, but most particularly writing. I suspect that a writer bringing a disturbed piece to a writing center may be asking for some sort of help, even if it's just recognition that other people get stressed, too. Last year in a BSU poetry class, a colleague wrote a deeply morbid and self bashing poem that set off all kinds of whistles and bells in my head about depression and hopelessness. I dealt with it quietly and personally, but I just liked the person anyhow, so it was an easy segue into a lasting friendship. I would have discussed it with the teacher if I hadn't been willing to say something myself. I wouldn't hesitate to let your director know even if all you have is a funny feeling about a person. What's the worst case scenario, the person was having a bad day and you misread their signals? I'd rather be wrong once in a while - you could save someone's life. What I wouldn't do is discuss it with other tutors before I talked to the director - unless it was urgent - because even the kindest of us inadvertently gossip or are overheard, and some students can be cruel to a person they suspect is unstable.

  3. Of course, serious concerns should be directed to the director.

    But I think it's also good for us to be aware of other campus resources. The Writing Center is just one of the resources available to students on our campus. Maybe we can mention some of the other resources in our consultations if we feel it's appropriate. Definitely not as a means of sending a student away, but, while we're focused on their writing, we could also mention that if they want to talk more about [the subject of concern] that there are counseling services, tutoring services, academic advising, etc. If we know, or educate ourselves, about these services, we can suggest that another student might be able to utilize them in addition to the Writing Center.

    Philip, I wonder--would you be offended if you came in for a consultation with the type of paper you mentioned and I suggested that, say, if you wanted to talk to someone more on the topic of suicide (maybe even as research?), you could check out the university counseling services? Would this be an inappropriate comment?

  4. Anonymous8:36 AM

    I worked with a student last fall whose paper dealt with recurring nightmares (of abuse and murder/suicide) and it was a very difficult and emotional session. We had met before during a classroom visit, so maybe she felt comfortable sharing with me as opposed to a total stranger.

    I did bring up the issues right away (again, this was easier since we weren't strangers) and she recognized the seriousness of her subject and was very upfront that yes, she is in counseling and is very much in the process of working through her issues. From there, our session covered usual topics like academic expectations and writerly issues.

    She mentioned that she was registered with our Accessibility Office, and so the next day I popped over to speak with the director there, just to kind of follow up a bit. I worried that was ehtically over-stepping my boundaries, but weighing the seriousness of everything, I went ahead anyway.

    Times like this are when it's good to have a working relationship with other services on campus - knowing who the counselors are, where their offices are - so that we can can help direct students when their needs begin to exceed the help we can provide.


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