Recognizing Students in Distress
As faculty or staff, you are in an excellent position to recognize behavioral changes that characterize the emotionally troubled student. A student’s behavior, especially if it is inconsistent with your previous observations, could constitute an inarticulate attempt to draw attention to his or her plight (i.e. cry for help). Your ability to recognize the signs of emotional distress and courage to acknowledge your concerns directly to the student are essential first steps in helping them get help.
The Distressed Student
At one time or another, everyone experiences stress and discomfort. Although it’s not unusual to feel anxious, depressed or confused, these feelings become significant when they are recurrent or extreme. The key to referring a student to counseling is when you observe multiple, recurrent signs and/or note increase in intensity in any of the indicators listed below.
- Persistent worrying/anxiety
- Depressed mood/persistent sadness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Noticeable continued fatigue
- Dramatic weight gain or loss
- Excessive alertness/fearfulness
- Grooming changes (lack of personal hygiene)
- General avoidance of people
- Inability to communicate clearly (i.e. garbled, slurred, disjointed or incoherent speech)
- Apparent difficulty with concentration
- Decline in grades and/or quality of work
- Repeated requests for special accommodations (deadline extensions, late homework, etc.)
- Change in pattern of interaction (i.e. avoiding participation, failure to stay awake in class, dominating discussions, etc.)
- Work which overtly indicates personal problems (essays about suicide, hopelessness, rage, etc.)
- Repeated pattern of failing to respond to your emails
- Expressions of concern from a peer
- Direct statements made by the student indicating distress, hopelessness, thoughts/plans of suicide or homicide
- Highly emotional behavior (i.e. tearfulness, rage or dependency)
- Psychosomatic complaints
- Perfectionism, procrastination or excessive worrying about not being able to finish the work
- Loss of contact with reality (i.e. seeing/hearing things which aren’t there; beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability)
The Disruptive Student
This group of students tends to be immature, manipulative or engages in disorderly conduct in and out of class (e.g. making crude remarks, etc.). Causes for the behavior may or may not be due to emotional distress. They may simply need to learn how to develop appropriate boundaries with others. They may need to “grow up” and become responsible adults. Often times, good modeling from adults and reinforcement from other peers will help them.
Basic Guidelines for Helping Students
- Recognize your own comfort level, style, personality, time constraints, expertise and desire for involvement in offering your own assistance. If you notice more than one of these indicators and don’t feel comfortable discussing it with the student, notify the Dean of Students.
- Talk to the student in private in order to minimize embarrassment, and pick a time when both of you have time to discuss your concerns. Give the student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel confident about what to do next.
- Express your concerns in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms (e.g., “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class lately, and I’m concerned”). Be specific about your observations!
- Listen to their viewpoint without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with them. Respect the student’s value system. Avoid judging, evaluating or criticizing.
- Ask questions to help clarify the issue. Don’t rush to fix it!
- Involve and encourage them to participate with you in exploring alternatives to deal with the problem. Find out about other support systems they may have on or off campus (i.e. Chaplain, coach, proctor, advisor, etc.).
Suggestions on How to Make a Referral
- Let the student know that it is not necessary to know exactly what is wrong in order to seek assistance.
- Assure the student that seeking help does not necessarily mean that their problems are unusual or extremely serious. Emphasize that seeking assistance is not a sign of failure or weakness but can help prevent things from getting worse.
- Be frank with students about your own limits of time, energy, training, objectivity and willingness to help (i.e. I can help you with ___, but this looks like an area ___ would be a better resource for you.).
- Share how other people/students have benefited from counseling.
- Suggest a one‐time consultation with a counselor to explore options. Suggest making an appointment in your office, or go with them if you feel comfortable.
- If counseling is needed but the student refuses, respect their self‐determination in this matter without negatively impacting your relationship with them, and continue to check in on them whenever feasible.
Michelle Harrison, coordinator of wellness programs, Office of Health and Wellness 909.621.8013. Email is email@example.com to consult or refer students for an appointment. Office is located in Platt Lounge next to the vending machines.
Monsour Counseling Center General line is 909.621.8202.
For after hour emergencies, call campus safety at 909.607.2000, and they will be able to contact the dean on call or the Monsour counselor on call.