Supporting Students in Distress
The demands on college students today can be quite heavy. When students try to balance academic demands, working, a social life, and participating in one or more out-of-class activities, their levels of fatigue and stress can become excessive. These issues frequently combine with pre-existing conditions to create acute psychological crises for the student. Faculty, coaches, and administrators are often the first to see signs of distress, as students often seek out people with whom they feel safe and supported.
The following are suggestions that may be helpful as you deal with students in distress.
Indications of Minor Trouble or Difficulties
These behaviors may or may not disrupt classes, dorm life, or athletic events, but may indicate that something is wrong and help is needed.
- Serious grade or performance problems or a change from consistently good grades to poor performance
- Excessive absences, especially if previous attendance was good
- Unusual or changed pattern of interaction such as avoiding participation, being excessively anxious when called upon or asked to perform, or displaying anger or emotional outbursts
- Other dramatic changes in behavior such as being excessively active or moody, swollen or red eyes, increase in alcohol or illicit drug use, marked changes in grooming, appearance, weight, etc.
What to do with Minor Difficulties
- Monitor the student’s behavior, keeping track of changes
- Talk with the students about the behavior and its effect on their performance
- Maintain normal standards and expectations for performance
- Suggest that the student consider support from Counseling Services
- Consult with Counseling Services at x6471
Indications of Moderate Trouble or Difficulties
These behaviors may indicate significant emotional distress and a need for more personal help.
- Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions
- Any behavior that pushes the limits of decorum and which interferes with your effective class and/or team management
- Unusual or exaggerated emotional response which is inappropriate to the situation
- Crying episodes, depressed mood, anger outbursts, prolonged irritability
- Marked changes in weight, appetite, food intake, being very particular about the types of foods eaten, exercise regimens, or time spent in bathroom
- Preoccupation with food, dietary topics, weight, or problems with menstrual periods
What to do with Moderate Difficulties
- All interventions for minor difficulties remain appropriate
- These students can consume large amounts of faculty and administration time. Set limits when meeting with these students, and attempt to stay on task when doing so.
- Be clear about your expectations of the student and communicate these to him/her
- Refer the student to Counseling Services at x6471
Indications of Serious Trouble or Difficulties
These behaviors usually show that the student is in crisis and needs immediate care.
- Hostile, disruptive, aggressive, or violent behavior
- Talk or hints of suicide as an option for present difficulties
- Inability to communicate clearly (slurred speech, unconnected or disjointed thoughts)
- Loss of contact with reality (seeing or hearing things that are’t there, beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability)
- Homicidal or violent threats
What to do with Serious Difficulties
- Contact Campus Safety at x6911
- Contact Counseling Services at x6471
- If there is any threat of danger to self or others, have someone stay with the student at all times until help arrives
- Consult with either Campus Safety or Counseling Services after the crisis passes to discuss your own reactions and access support.
Find a private setting in which to talk. Allow enough time to attend to the student without interruption.
Try to understand the student’s concern without necessarily agreeing with him or her.
Determine what the student would like for you to do and decide whether this is a role you are comfortable playing. If not, say so.
Avoid making commitments you may not be able to keep, such as assuring their confidentiality. It is difficulty to have a dual role with a student by serving as both a teacher/coach/administrator and a confidant. This can lead to conflicts and confusion for you and the student.
If the student presents an immediate threat to self or others, this must be immediately reported to Campus Safety and Counseling Services.
Consult with a counselor. This can be done without divulging the name of the student. The fact that you sought consultation is also confidential.
Making a Referral to Counseling Services
When working with students experiencing difficulties, it is important to understand the point at which we have exhausted our ability to be of help. To go beyond this point exposes the student to increased risk and distress, and the helper and the university to the prospect of litigation.
If you decide to refer, let the student know you will be talking to someone about the matter. Again, this can be done without divulging the student’s name. Typically, a student can expect to be seen within a few days. If the concern is emergent, we will see the student immediately
Report your findings to the student and let the student decide on the next step. Do not let the student’s reluctance weaken your resolve that a referral is the appropriate next step. Have the student make the appointment and help with this as needed. Again, we will always see a student immediately when there is an urgent need to do so. If the student appears reluctant to contact Counseling Services, simply walking them over to the appointment is often an effective option.
What to Expect After an Appointment is Made
After the initial appointment, recommendations will be made for further evaluation or treatment as needed. The final treatment plan will include a range of services depending upon the particular problem and its severity. The student and their family (when appropriate) are active participants in generating the treatment plan. Health and Counseling Services will remain responsible for overseeing the treatment plan but professionals in the Salem community may provide some services. These services might include psychiatric consultation and med management, consultation with a dietician or nutritionist, and specialized counseling services (e.g., alcohol and drug treatment).
- Counseling Services: x6471
- Campus Safety x6911