It is essential to recognise that people cannot 'snap out' of a mental illness and that people are unlikely to 'get over it' without help and support. If ignored and left untreated mental health illness can continue and most likely worsen.
Recognition and treatment are essential to helping people manage their depression and return to their studies.
Although some candidates may choose to disclose their mental health difficulties with their supervisor(s), others may not as they may not fully acknowledge the difficulties they are experiencing or they may fear an adverse reaction if they do disclose their difficulties.
As a supervisor, you may be able to offer information and support to candidates which encourage them to seek professional supports and serves that increases their capacity to function effectively.
To do this effectively it is important to be informed of mental health illness and have an understanding of:
- Effective communication strategies
- How to manage performance concerns
- Where and when to refer for professional support
How to talk to a Candidate about Mental Health
When & How to Refer for Help?
- How to promote and support professional help seeking.
- Self-care for supervisor – seeking help where necessary.
The following links provide useful suggestions and videos for having a conversation with someone you are concerned about, promoting help-seeking and professional support, and self-care strategies for supervisors. While these resources have been developed for the workplace, many of the principles can be applied in the HDR supervisor/candidate context:
- Having the conversation
- Taking care of you
- UTAS Counselling Service
This is a free confidential counselling service available to UTAS students.
- Staff Counselling
In addition Staff Counselling is a 24 hour service available to UTAS employees provided free of charge under the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). You can also access their Manager Direct service for supervisors and managers for advice, mentoring and coaching, conflict, team disharmony, poor performance as well as guidance and support for difficult conversations.
As a supervisor you may feel uncomfortable or find it difficult to talk about mental health issues with candidates. The following tips may help you in planning to have initial discussions with a candidate you suspect may be experiencing a mental health problem.
- Become familiar with terms and words that best describe mental illness. This will allow you to effectively discuss mental health issues, negotiate reasonable adjustments to candidature, and obtain further advice from professional support services. See the links below for suggestions of helpful terms to use when discussing mental illness.
- Make a time to discuss the issues with the candidate and plan for this discussion. In planning for this meeting consider where the best place to have the discussion as well as the timing of the meeting.
- Think about what you would like to discuss with the candidate. This might include:
- Raising concerns you have relating to the candidate's current performance and progress;
- Identifying potential causes to problems you have observed;
- Identifying potential reasonable adjustments that can be made to candidature to enable them to become a productive candidate again; and
- Developing a plan of action and follow-up
Having the Discussion
- Focus on candidature-related problems that you have observed. For example: "I am concerned about you. You are very competent, but lately I have noticed that you are struggling to meet our agreed deadlines…"
- Asking open ended questions can help start the conversation – e.g. "What do you think the problems are?" and "What would be helpful for you?"
- It is important to remember that it is reasonable to ask questions or discuss a candidate's possible mental health difficulties with them – for the purpose of identifying reasonable adjustments that can be made to the candidature.
- However, it is not OK to ask questions that are humiliating, discriminatory, personal or in no way related to determining whether the candidate is capable of continuing with the candidature, and if not, what adjustments can be made and supports put in place to assist them further.
- Respect the candidate's confidentiality. It is a big decision for a person to disclose a mental health issue, particularly if they have concern that it will impact the way people view and treat them.
Make it clear that the only time information would need to be disclosed is if there was a serious and/or imminent threat to the candidate's safety or another person's safety.
- Be aware of your body language. Try not to have a barrier (e.g. desk, laptop) between you and the candidate. Sit in a relaxed manner, with legs and arms uncrossed and show that you are engaged with the candidate by giving eye contact.
- Prepare yourself in case the meeting becomes uncomfortable or does not go in the direction you planned. Some people may feel threatened when an attempt is made to discuss mental health and offer assistance. It is important to remain calm, firm and fair.
Two possible outcomes are likely to result from the discussion:
- The candidate acknowledges their difficulties and an action plan can be developed to seek additional supports (if needed) and make any necessary reasonable adjustments to the candidate's candidature.
- The candidate denies that they are experiencing difficulties and declines offers of assistance or reasonable adjustments to their candidature.
- If the candidate chooses not to accept further assistance finish the meeting by letting them know that they can come and talk with you any time in the future if they do need assistance. Additionally, provide information about other support services they may wish prefer to engage if needed, in the future.
- If you feel that the candidate's performance-related issues remain unresolved and that it is unlikely that the candidate will progress to completion in the required time frame without further action – then it may be appropriate to seek further guidance from your GRC/GRO (without identifying the candidate).