Why I Asked “Are You Okay?”

The student mentioned in this post concerning mental health granted me permission to share it in this context. If you would like emotional support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For resources outside the United States, click here.

When I was a full-time professor, a student I knew from my department hurried out of the choir room immediately after singing a musical theater solo about suicide. I did not know why the student left, but I thought, “Someone should go check on him.” No one moved. A moment later, I realized I felt the need to check on him because I had experienced suicidal depression while in grad school.

During my depression, things I had loved could sporadically cause triggers of extreme emotional pain that led me to isolate myself. I got counseling and recovered, but I did not seek campus resources to accommodate my condition. Not all my faculty knew about my situation, especially because it helped me to continue going to class and doing my work. I chose not to explain to my professors the time I came back late from a class break because a documentary video clip upset me and the time I skipped part of a lecture to eat when my emotions had disrupted my meal schedule before class.

a dark and cloudy  sunset

I had no idea if the student who sang might be struggling with mental health, and I did not have the opportunity to consult my colleagues because other student performances continued after his. I left in case the student’s departure might be an urgent matter. I ran down the stairway to catch up with him and simply asked, “Are you okay?” He was fine: he simply needed to leave early for another commitment.

I do not regret checking on the student. In my last few semesters as a college instructor, I highlighted campus resources in syllabi, saying “Life happens. Communicate with someone.” I strived to accommodate students with family emergencies and episodic or chronic mental health conditions whether they communicated their needs through campus offices or directly to me. This approach underpins my present work of supporting underrepresented students in music theory, composition, or writing.

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