I've been struggling a lot recently with stuff thats been going on, I'm in therapy and receiving help but I'm still having a really hard time. I have a professor who's always asking if I'm doing okay even though I've never told him anything about what's been going on. The other day he came up to me and told me if I needed anything, or even just someone to listen, I could come to him. I kind of want to talk to him, but I'm scared of bothering him and I don't know how I would go about it.

If I should talk to him, should I go to his office hours and ask? Or should I send an email because he doesn't have office hours for another week?

  • Is the professor the same gender as you? If not, I'd be more cautious. Emotional intimacy can have side-effects.
    – mbomb007
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 16:12
  • "Acceptable" to whom? Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 16:14

8 Answers 8


Obviously, how you approach this will depend on what your relationship with the professor is like. That they have personally asked how you're doing is a great sign that you aren't an anonymous face in a large lecture hall. In many ways, having yet another person to talk to---even if it's just a brief session to unload your worries---is hugely beneficial. Pain festers in isolation! I would wager that most any professor has seen the gamut of student depression and other life circumstances. You will not be the first student they've had who has struggled. From their comments, it seems like they suspect something is troubling you and want to check in and see what support they can give.

However, there are some power dynamics at play that are worth acknowledging and considering.

  • Particularly in the US, professors are considered mandatory reporters. As such, they are required to notify the appropriate people in some circumstances (e.g., Title IX violations, crimes, imminent self-harm, etc.). Be aware that they may not legally be allowed to keep your conversation confidential.

  • Outside of mandatory reporting, know that professors have to strike a balance between being compassionate and caring versus the needs of their other students and university policy.

  • Professors will often be aware of resources that you are unfamiliar with on campus---from counseling services, to support groups, to tutoring services. This also cuts both ways: professors are not licensed therapists and cannot supplant the role of one. They are, however, genuine humans with human emotions and compassion.

  • If outside circumstances are impacting your classroom performance, then this is an excellent reason to reach out to your professors. I would much rather be alerted early, even in vague terms, that there are external factors at work, than learn at the end of the semester after I've assigned grades. It is much easier to work out a proactive plan (such as meeting regularly, building a schedule for catching up, or even filing an incomplete grade) when there is time left to work with. If you think you're falling behind, talk to your professors as soon as possible. Many are very accommodating and receptive. That being said, this should not be considered an expectation and professors must always balance what is fair to the entire class.

  • Choosing whether to reach out via email or in person (during office hours or similar) is highly dependent on you. If the idea of talking about your struggles in person is overwhelming, then a vaguely worded email can be sufficient to clue your professor in---never feel like your are forced to share more than you are comfortable with! It is not your professor's job to decide whether your problems are "bad enough." If you just want to let them know that you're struggling and need help, then don't feel pressured to say anything more than that! However, if they seem receptive, even general details of what you're dealing with can help steer the conversation and course of direction. If you're up for it, having a face-to-face meeting can be more productive (again, doubly so where your professor has strongly hinted that you are welcome to come by even if you just need someone to talk to).
  • 3
    +1 for bullet 4. Give faculty and yourself a chance to work out a proactive plan that can include decisions points (when to 'give up' for that semester or when you promise to drop other XYZ activities because something has to give). While trying to be accommodating, faculty need to balance what is fair to entire class. That is easier to plan as a fair process when it is discussed earlier (rather than begging for special consideration at end of semester).
    – Carol
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 22:39
  • Although I'm not from the US, I have never heard of professors being "mandatory reporters" before. Can you provide a link to any documentation showing their obligations?
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 3:18
  • @Ben Go to the website of any US University and search for "Title IX Compliance," and look around for policies relating to faculty & employees of the university. For example, MIT: titleix.mit.edu/faculty/responsibilities , Cornell: titleix.cornell.edu/reporting/staff-and-faculty-duty-to-consult , Univ of California system: sexualviolence.universityofcalifornia.edu/faq/…
    – erfink
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 4:09
  • 1
    @Ben From the Association of Title IX Administrators (www.atixa.org), this gives an overview: atixa.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/…
    – erfink
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 4:18

He's already said he's OK with it, so yes, it's acceptable.

You can probably do either method to talk to him. The difference would be whether or not you're face-to-face. If you're able to talk about your personal issues without breaking down, then face-to-face is also more personal. However if you think you're likely to, e.g., spend most of the time crying or tongue-tied, you might want to use email instead. It's up to you.


All professors should be able to have this sort of conversation with students, and should regard it as part of their duties. It's a key skill for anybody in a teaching profession.

Academic culture being what it is, not all professors do welcome this kind of conversation. Some still view teaching duties as an unwelcome distraction from the "real work" of research. (Some people really are much better suited to research than to teaching; others just don't try.)

But it sounds as if your professor has a better attitude. If you feel that it would be helpful to talk to him, you should definitely not have any guilt about "bothering him" - this is part of his job.


Talking to a Professor, indeed anyone is acceptable to guide you with personal problems.

Caveats are in this increasingly competitive world include: - Privacy, can this person possibly use this information against you; - Look at the persons credentials to answer your questions, are they widely respected and indeed qualified to answer you - in the field specific to your 'personal issue'. Your professor maybe a great physicist, but are they expert in handling divorce, death, bullying etc; by way of example. - Don't put ANYTHING in writing, unless it is briefing your legal counsel.

  • 1
    Perhaps your cautionary answer would be a good one to add in how "mandated reporting" (U.S. term for concept to which Brian Borchers alluded above) often kicks in. In many places a faculty member must report if there is risk of harm to anyone or evidence of abuse of a minor; learning of some other situations (sexual harassment or assault) may also trigger this, so keeping certain statements generic may be wise unless you want the professor + university's help in dealing with an issue. Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 3:35

Talk to him - as the other answers point out it may be part of their job.

My point is you can ask a friend / best friend / collegue along as a witness, moral support, friend, shoulder to cry on etc. I even say to students to bring along someone - this works for both “sides” - either they sit in the room and don’t contribute or they help “fill out” the conversation.

Depending on the location then he may have to report - usually to help get further action to your benefit - I have asked students “can I take this situation to X for you” to help get a solution - had both yes and no answers...

Do talk to someone though...


This is really more of an extended comment.

Some information about your relationship with this professor, or lack of it, would be helpful and probably relevant.

Similarly, some information about what kinds of issues you are dealing with would also be helpful and probably relevant.

Have you ever spoken to this person individually? If not, what interaction have you had with him? Also, what are you expecting from a conversation with him? It is worth giving a little thought to that. If you are just looking for a sympathetic person to talk to, you hopefully have other options - friends, family etc. If you are looking for a trained professional to help with psychological/mental issues, the professor is clearly not that. If you need someone who can possibly help with some academic-related issues. then it might be reasonable to talk with him. But as others have mentioned, be careful. Don't assume the professor is your friend, just because he seems friendly and sympathetic.


Do not offer anything you are not willing or able to fulfill.

With respect to this claim, when the professor offers you such personal conversation they shall be able to handle it.

It is acceptable to accept such offer but be careful what you want to say and how you want to say it. Remember, what has beet said cannot be unsaid.

The fewer details you disclose, the better. If they want to see detailed picture, they'll ask. If you want to share, you'll answer.


I find it highly upsetting and uncomfortable if a student introduces themselves with their personal problem. This happens all the time around the end of a semester. In a class of about 200 students, I get dozens of emails that open with the details of a personal tragedy and then tell me they need an extension. It's not that I think students are lying (I always assume they're not). It's that the volume of tragedies from strangers is a lot to process and handle. I do not like doing it, and sometimes even dread it.

On the other hand, I know tons about a few students and bend over backwards to help them through their problems, about which I know all the details. These students are not strangers to me, and we had a pre-existing academic relationship and rapport before problems befell them. I see helping them as part of my job. I do not feel this way about strangers.

In this case, you are being given a wide open invitation to seek support from this person. You are absolutely welcome to take it, and I encourage you to do so. Not all Profs are willing or able to hear your problems (I am one of those people if I do not know you already), but you can always assume that, if the invitation is extended, we 100% mean it.

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