Students in Distress

You may be the first to notice a student who is experiencing difficulty. You do not have to take on the role of the counselor or diagnose a student. You need only notice signs of distress and communicate these to the college's Counseling Center or Student Support Services Office. If you choose, you also may have a direct conversation with the student to gather a little information, express your concern, and offer resource referral information.


Often, there are indicators that a student is experiencing distress long before a situation escalates to a crisis. To assist our students in maintaining their mental health and maximizing their intellectual growth, it is important to identify difficulties as early as possible. The presence of one of the following indicators alone does not necessarily mean that the student is experiencing severe distress. However, the more indicators you notice, the more likely it is that the student needs help. When in doubt, consult with the Counseling Center or Dean of Students Office (for contacts, see page 10). Faculty member may have concerns about reporting information about students to others.

Academic Indicators

  • Repeated absences from class, lab, or section
  • Missed assignments, exams, or appointments
  • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work
  • Extreme disorganization or erratic performance
  • Written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, or confusion; essays or papers that focus on suicide or death
  • Continual seeking of special provisions (extensions on papers, make-up exams)
  • Patterns of perfectionism: e.g., can't accept themselves if they don't get an A
  • Overblown or disproportionate response to grades or other evaluations

Behavioral And Emotional Indicators

  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or loss
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling, or aggressive comments
  • More withdrawn or animated than usual
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; crying or tearfulness
  • Expressions of sever anxiety or irritability
  • Excessively demanding or dependent behavior
  • Lack of response or outreach from course staff
  • Shaking, tremors, fidgeting, or pacing

Physical Indicators

  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion; falling asleep in class repeatedly
  • Visible changes in weight; statements about change in appetites or sleep
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns
  • Frequent or chronic illness
  • Disorganized speech, rapid or slurred speech, confusion
  • Unusual inability to make eye contact
  • Coming to class beady-eyed or smelling of alcohol

Other Factors

  • Concern about a student by his/her peers or another faculty member
  • A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong

Safety Risk Indicators

  • Written or verbal statements that mention despair, suicide, or death
  • Severe hopelessness, depression, isolation, and withdrawal
  • Statements to the effect that the student is "going away for long time"

If a student is exhibiting any of these sings, s/he may pose an immediate danger to her/himself. In these cases, you should stay with the student and contact the Counseling Center at 388-6161 (after hours call 388-6191 and ask to speak to the on-call counselor). You can also walk the student to the Counseling Center in Silliman Hall during the hours of 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. M-F.

 

Responding to Distress: Choosing a Pathway

There are two pathways to choose once you have identified a student in distress: speaking directly with the student or contacting the Counseling Center or Dean of Students Office (or Campus Safety if "after hours").

If you have a relationship or good rapport with the student, speaking directly to the student may be the best option. Begin the conversation by expressing your concerns about specific behaviors you have observed.

If you do not really know the student, you may prefer contacting you college's Counseling Center or Dean of Students Office, or Campus Safety if they are not available.

Your decision about which path to choose also may be influenced by:

  • Your level of experience or comfort
  • The nature of severity of the problem
  • Your ability to give time to the situation
  • A variety of other personal factors

Consult

You are an expert in many things, but no one is an expert in everything. There are plenty of resources around you that you can consult with to get a better feeling about a situation. Consult with one or more of these resources if you have questions or concerns:

  • Counseling Center
  • Dean of Students Office
  • Department chair
  • Academic Dean

The Counseling Center and Dean of Students Office have someone on call 24/7. This person can be accessed after hours by contacting Campus Safety at (518) 388‐6911 and asking to speak to an on call professional staff member.

Make Contact

You should not take on the role of counselor. You need only listen, care, and offer resource referral information.

  • Meet privately with the student (choose a time and place where you will not be interrupted).
  • Turn off all distractions (cellphone, computer, etc)
  • Set a positive tone. Express your concerns and caring.
  • Point out specific signs you've observed using "I" statements. ("I've noticed lately that...")
  • Ask, "How are thing going for you?"
  • Listen attentively to the student's response and encourage him or her to talk. ("Tell me more about that.")
  • Allow the student time to tell the story. Allow silences in the conversation. Don't give up if the student is slow to talk.
  • Ask open‐ended questions that deal directly with the issues without judging. ("What problems has that situation caused you?")
  • If there are signs of safety risk, ask if the student is considering suicide. A student who is considering suicide will likely be relieved that you asked. If the student is not contemplating suicide, asking the question will not "put ideas in their head."
  • Paraphrase what you have heard as well as your concern and caring. ("What do you need to do to get back on healthy path?")
  • Ask the student what s/he thinks would help.
  • Suggest resources and referrals. Share any information you have about the particular resource you are suggesting and the potential benefit to the student. ("I know the folks in that office and they are really good at helping students work through these kinds of situations.")
  • Avoid making sweeping promises of confidentiality, particularity if the student presents safety risk. Students who are suicidal need swift professional intervention; assurances of absolute confidentiality may get in the way.

Unless the student is suicidal or may be a danger to others, the ultimate decision to access resources is the student's. If the student says, "I'll think about it," when you offer referral information, it is okay. Let the student know that you are interested in hearing how s/he is doing in a day or two. Talk with someone, a colleague, dean, etc. – about the conversation. Follow up with the student in a day or two.

 

(excerpted from the Students in Distress Manual)