Recognizing Students in Distress
As faculty members, you may be the first to notice a student who is experiencing difficulty. You do not have to take on the role of counselor or diagnose a student. You need only notice signs of distress and communicate these to your college’s academic advising, counseling or student services professionals. If you choose, you also may have a direct conversation with the student to gather a little more 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 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 your college’s academic advising, counseling or student services professionals.
- Repeated absences from class, section, or lab
- 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- More withdrawn or more animated than usual
- Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; crying or tearfulness
- Expressions of severe anxiety or irritability
- Excessively demanding or dependent behavior
- Lack of response to outreach from course staff
- Shakiness, tremors, fidgeting, or pacing
- Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
- Excessive fatigue, exhaustion; falling asleep in class repeatedly
- Visible changes in weight; statements about change in appetite 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 bleary-eyed or smelling of alcohol
- Concern about a student by his/her peers or teaching assistant
- 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 a long time” If a student is exhibiting any of these signs, s/he may pose an immediate danger to her/himself. In these cases, you should stay with the student and seek professional help immediately. THE
SITUATION IS AN EMERGENCY IF:
- Physical or verbal aggression is directed at self, others, animals, or property
- The student is unresponsive to the external environment; he or she is —incoherent or passed out —disconnected from reality/exhibiting psychosis —displaying unmitigated disruptive behavior
- The situation feels threatening or dangerous to you
Responding to Students in Distress
“When I see students in emotional pain, I try to go out of my way to talk to them. Sometimes they just need a friendly person to talk to. In other cases, I know they might benefit from talking to a professional from CAPS. In either case, they just need to know that someone cares.” – Donna M. Fox, Ph.D., Director, GeorgeSquared, Biomedical Sciences Programs, George Mason & Georgetown Univ.
CHOOSING A PATHWAY: There are two pathways to choose from once you have identified a student in distress: speaking directly with the student or consulting with campus resources. If you have a relationship or rapport with the student, speaking directly to him/her may be best. Begin by expressing your concerns about specific behaviors you have observed. If you do not really know the student, you may prefer to consult with someone first as a way to decide what to do next.
ACTION STEP #1: IF YOU DECIDE TO CONSULT
Consult with one or more of these resources:
- Your institution’s academic advising, student services or counseling center staff, or a colleague (perhaps someone who also knows the student)
- Your department chair or dean
- Your contact for your campus Threat Assessment Team
ACTION STEP #2: IF YOU DECIDE TO MAKE CONTACT: Remember, you don’t need to take on the role of counselor. You really only need to express concern, listen, and offer support and give resource information when needed.
- Meet privately with the student in a time/place where you will not be interrupted.
- Set a positive tone. Express your concern and caring.
- Point out specific signs you’ve observed. (“I’ve noticed lately that you . . .”)
- Ask, “How are things going for you?”
- Listen attentively and encourage him or her to talk. (“Tell me more about that.”)
- Allow the student time to tell the story. Allow for silences 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.”
- Restate what you have heard as well as your concern and caring. (“What do you need to do to get back on a healthy path?”)
- Ask the student what s/he thinks would help.
- Suggest resources and referrals. Share information about resources you suggest 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, particularly if the student presents a safety risk. Students who are suicidal need swift professional intervention; assurances of absolute confidentiality may get in the way.
ACTION STEP #3: IF YOU DECIDE TO REFER: Explain the limitations of your knowledge and experience. Be clear that your referral to someone else does not mean that you think there is something wrong with the student or that you are not interested. You can still be a part of the student’s support network as much as you are able, but it’s important to bring in other resources when the student needs more than you can offer.
- Provide name, phone number, and office location of the referral resource or walk the student to your school’s academic advising, counseling or student services office if you are concerned the student won’t follow up. Try to normalize the need to ask for help. It is helpful if you know the names of staff people and can speak highly of them. Convey a spirit of hopefulness and convey that troublesome situations can and do get better.
- Realize that your offer of help may be rejected. People in varying levels of distress sometimes deny their problems because it is difficult to admit they need help or they think things will get better on their own. Take time to listen to the student’s fears and concerns about seeking help. Let the student know that it is because of your concern for him/her that you are referring him/her to an expert.
- End the conversation in a way that will allow you or the student to revisit the subject at another time. Keep lines of communication open. Invite the student back to follow up.
- If you have an urgent concern about a student’s safety, stay with the student and notify campus counseling, campus security or, if you think appropriate, the police.
For additional information regarding appropriate actions for recognizing and responding to students in crisis, or for directions on how to seek help for yourself of a colleague, please review The Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia’s handbook here.