My brother is severely depressed and has absolutely minimal support, in any form, from my family. He's a very bright guy with no direction and no resources at home. After graduating from high school, he spent 3 years at a dysfunctional relative’s home playing video games, and finally enrolled in college after I badgered him the entire time in-between.

He chose not to enroll for the second year of college. He stayed at home playing games again. He "did not like" school except for one course, where he happened to have a minor friendship with a professor. This professor nominated my brother’s essay for a departmental honor. My brother rarely has good news, and when he does he often does not voluntarily share it. So for him to offer this story up to me makes it stand out.

This professor almost certainly knows my brother has some sort of problems. There are cases when you can just look at someone and know; my brother is one of those cases. But, given that this prof nominated my brother’s essay for a departmental honor, I think that the prof at least somewhat believes my brother is capable of some sort of achievement (I think my brother is even brighter and more capable than me, but I know him differently).

I want to reach out to brother’s professor and ask him to inquire about my brother’s situation. Going to college is the best chance my brother has to break a generational cycle, but he does not know this, and he will not listen to me (I am only 3 years older than him, he may think I'm a similarly clueless peer). This prof, on the other hand, is a person who my brother might listen to. Presumably the professor also agrees with my assessment of what an education can do for a life. I sense that this idea might get backlash – e.g. this is not the prof’s responsibility, that it is rude to even ask, and perhaps if the prof cared he would have reached out on his own already. However, on the other hand, this prof probably went into this business with the hopes of changing the world for the better, and thirty minutes or an hour of his time might change someone’s life. Plus, he has no reason to know just how dire my brother’s situation is (there are plenty of loser-looking people with average to robust support networks – but my brother does not). I plan on contacting the prof, either via email or phone. What I ask you is for advice on how to tactfully and effectively make this ask.

The end goal is to get my brother back in school and to encourage my brother to build his own support network, and to know that it is impossible to succeed without one. I accept that I might get a flat out “no,” but for the sake of this thread let’s assume that he agrees to something small like a phone call or a coffee (I assume he is kind enough to oblige, plus he seems to have liked my brother somewhat). Also, how should I handle the corollary issues that my ask might raise? For example, I don’t want to make this prof feel like I am asking him to be a mentor to my brother or that this will create some enduring obligation. Moreover, I can’t expect this prof to know how to deal with people the same way a therapist would. Is it appropriate to suggest that the professor suggest therapy (which is what’s truly needed here) to my brother? There are more things that may come up, but for the sake of ending this post, I’ll end it here. Many thanks to you all.


"I plan on contacting the prof, either via email or phone. What I ask you is for advice on how to tactfully and effectively make this ask."

  1. If you can wait until January, I would. Your email would seem less intrusive after the break, I think.

  2. I suggest you make a connection with the professor, and have a rather open-ended call, rather than making a particular request. Trust the professor's empathy and interest in your brother to (a) perhaps ask if there's anything he can do, and (b) think creatively about what he could do.

    The professor is a different person from you, and his relationship with your brother is different from yours. He may have a different way of interacting or influencing your brother, that might not be exactly what you are imagining. But if the professor is interested in getting in touch with your brother, I imagine you'll feel relieved and grateful, and won't mind if he doesn't take a precise Jazzie3-clone approach.

  3. I don't know what the professor's reaction would be, but if I were in his shoes, I would go into a conversation with my troubled student with, again, an open-ended approach.

  4. Sometimes it's helpful to go with a loved one to a regular medical doctor. See this other answer.

  5. Sometimes it's helpful for the frustrated person (you) to talk things over with a therapist. This can be hard to accept, but surprisingly, it can be helpful.

  6. Possible starting point for an email:

    Dear Prof. X,

    I'm Zak's brother. He was really touched when you nominated him for a prize, and I was impressed at how engaged he was in your class.

    Zak isn't doing so well this year.

    I can imagine that with confidentiality rules, there's not much you can say, but it would still be helpful for me to talk with the one professor Zak made a good connection with. May I make an appointment to come and see you?

  • +1. I would just add the word "brief" to the last sentence (e.g., "an appointment for a brief phone call or visit"). As the instructor, I would be nervous about getting roped into an open-ended mental health intervention, but would happily agree to a brief call (during which, I might happily agree to another brief call with the student in question).
    – cag51
    2 days ago

One thing to be aware of is that in the US there is a law (FERPA) that limits what professors can discuss with others about students and their academic performance. The professor might not be in a position to talk about this student at all (even stating that a person was a student at the university could be a FERPA violation.)

  • 7
    FERPA does not prevent the professor from listening to anything OP wants to say to him, so this is mostly a non-issue, as OP only wishes to ask the professor to do certain things, and does not require any input from the professor’s side. All OP needs to do to get around FERPA (assuming the professor would be that concerned about it, which most aren’t) is “I know that my brother took your course, and that you are not legally allowed to confirm that fact, so you don’t need to say anything, please just listen to what I have to say.”
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 25 '17 at 6:09
  • 2
    +1 This (FERPA) is exactly why I was asking OP which part of the world they were in ...
    – Mad Jack
    Dec 25 '17 at 14:34
  • 4
    Starting with "Do you know my brother John who was a student at your university", I'm afraid that I'd have to say, "I'm sorry, I can't discuss anything about John with you." Merely confirming that John was a former student of mine is against the rules. It's true that I could listen to anything you have to say, but since I couldn't respond, I'd cut the conversation short at that point. Dec 25 '17 at 21:37
  • FERPA specifically allows directory information to be disclosed to third parties without consent, provided the university gives notice of such (and the student has not requested restrictions be placed on it).
    – Peter K.
    Jan 25 at 0:46
  • @PeterK. true, but I have no way of determining whether a student has requested that their directory information be kept private so I have to assume that the student has done so. Jan 25 at 0:52

My suggestion is to do what you think can help your brother and not worry too much about what is “appropriate”. With that said, I think you are putting too much hope in the professor’s ability to influence your brother. Depression is a serious illness that among its other effects can greatly distort people’s view of reality, to an extent that often cannot be countered using logic and persuasion (but may be addressed using medication and other medical care).

So go ahead and try if you must, but keep in mind that the professor is quite likely to refuse to intervene, and that even if he agrees, the chances that it would make any difference are not great.

Finally, I think the idea to ask the professor to suggest to your brother to go to therapy is a very bad idea. The professor cannot possibly know your brother well enough for such a recommendation to carry any authority (you said yourself that “he has no reason to know just how dire my brother’s situation is”), so making such a suggestion would only undermine his credibility and make it less likely that your brother would listen to any of his other advice.

Good luck. And just to be clear, everything I say here is my opinion only and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, which I think is what your brother really needs.


Your brother's problem is, unfortunately, becoming a common one for many students in relation to getting caught up with cheap distractions because of depression or anxiety. That said, I know that many universities are developing strategies for dealing with students who are suffering from anxiety and depression as it is now becoming well known that university students suffer high rates. We as professors are asked to watch out if students are having difficulties and provide support if we can, or refer them to campus services. Here's a hard line. The family situation may have contributed to your brother's situation and state of mind, however, he is also responsible for the choices he makes. On the other hand, if you do go to the Professor and ask him to reach out to your brother it seems that you are expecting your brother to appreciate that someone does care about him, other than you, and that he will hopefully respond appropriately. Unfortunately, depression does not respond to this form of intervention. Depression is after all a chemical imbalance in the brain that will not be alleviated by a single gesture or intervention. I wish you good heart.

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