Talking about Mental Health: Scenarios and Responses – Scenario Three

The following is an excerpt from the handout Talking about Mental Health: Scenarios and Responses, included in Starting a Conversation about Mental Health: Foundational Training for Students. The guide is a facilitator’s guide for use with post-secondary students and the scenarios offer suggestions on how to respond to students who are overwhelmed and feeling distressed.

These scenarios can be used as starting points for discussions and continued thought about how we can respond with empathy to students while recognizing and honouring their strengths and capacity to achieve balance. We will be reprinting one new scenario every month on our blog.

Scenario three:

Indigenous student triggered by lesson content

You are in class when the instructor begins talking about Canada’s residential school system and the abuse and forced assimilation of Indigenous children. As the lesson closes and students begin to pack up, you notice that a usually gregarious Indigenous student is sitting quietly and appears to be wiping tears from their eyes. When you approach the student, they tell you that their grandmother was in a residential school and they found the lesson very triggering.

Key points

  • Recognize and validate the student’s distress without appropriating it.
  • Actively and non-judgmentally listen to the student’s story, if they wish to share it with you.
  • Connect the student with Indigenous services (such as an Elder in Residence or an Indigenous or liaison counsellor).
  • Offer support in contacting the instructor about trigger warnings in future.

Possible response

Thank you for sharing that with me. I noticed you were tearful, and I’m very sorry that you’re upset. I won’t pretend to know exactly how you’re feeling, but I understand there is intergenerational trauma related to the residential school system. If you feel comfortable, please tell me more about how you’re feeling and how you’ve been affected. Can I assist you in accessing Indigenous services? There are staff on campus who can connect you with Indigenous Elders and counsellors. If you’d like, I can also talk to the instructor about providing trigger warnings on content like this in the future, or I can support you in contacting the instructor.

Unhelpful responses

  • Well, that was a long time ago, and it didn’t happen to you.
  • You need to develop a thicker skin; don’t be so sensitive!
  • A lot of groups have been oppressed.
  • Oh my gosh, that instructor is totally racist! Don’t worry, I’m going to take up your cause and make sure everybody knows how totally unacceptable this is! (This response disrespects the Indigenous student’s voice and agency. It appropriates their trauma and misunderstands the situation.)

This handout is licensed under a Starting a Conversation about Mental Health: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Foundational Training for Students International license (CC BY 4.0 license). © Jenny Guild (CC BY 4.0 license) 

“Starting a Conversation about Mental Health: Foundational Training for Students” includes a facilitator’s guide with handouts and a PowerPoint presentation. This adaptable training resource covers foundational mental health and wellness information for post-secondary students and ways to respond to peers who are experiencing distress. It can be used for a two-to three-hour synchronous training session or for self-study. 

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The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels