Working with Students in Distress
A Guide for Faculty and Staff
Cornell College Counseling Center
College students typically encounter a great deal of stress during their undergraduate years (i.e., academic, social, family, work, financial). While most students cope successfully with the demands of college life, for some the pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable. Students may feel alone, isolated, helpless and even hopeless. These feelings can easily disrupt academic performance and may result in harmful behaviors such as substance abuse and attempts at suicide.
Faculty and staff members are in a unique position to identify and help students who are struggling with various issues or are in crisis. This may be particularly true for students who cannot or will not turn to family or friends, or for students who are unaware of resources available to them. Anyone who is seen as caring and trustworthy may be a potential resource in a time of trouble. Your expression of interest and concern may be a critical factor in saving students' academic careers or even their lives.
The purpose of this brochure is to help you recognize some of the symptoms of student distress and to provide some specific options for intervention and for referral to campus resources. The Counseling Center is, in general, available to assist you with problem situations and to consult with you.
Tips for Recognizing Distressed Students
At one time or another, everyone feels low or upset. The following may help to identify some symptoms which, when present over a period of time, suggest that the problems with which the person is dealing are more than the "normal" ones.
Marked Changes in Academic Performance or Behavior
- Poor performance and preparation
- Excessive absences or tardiness
- Repeated requests for special consideration especially when this represents a
change from previous functioning
- Unusual or changed pattern of interaction
- Avoiding participation
- Dominating discussions
- Excessively anxious when called upon
- Disruptive behavior
- Problems with roommate(s) or family
- Exaggerated emotional response obviously inappropriate to the situation
Unusual Behavior or Appearance
- Depressed or lethargic mood
- Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
- Swollen or red eyes
- Change in personal hygiene or dress
- Dramatic weight loss or gain
- Strange or bizarre behavior indicating loss of contact with reality
References to Suicide, Homicide or Death
- Feelings about helplessness or hopelessness
- Overt references to suicide
- Isolation from friends or family
- Homicidal or suicidal threats, any of which may occur in students' verbal or written statements
If you choose to approach a student you're concerned about or if a student reaches out to you for help with personal problems, here are some suggestions that might make the opportunity more comfortable for you and more helpful for the student.
TALK to the student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied. 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 cared about as an individual and more confident about what to do.
If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, "I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned," rather than "Where have you been lately? You should be more concerned about your grades."
LISTEN to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, nonthreatening way. Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you. Try to include both content and feelings. Let the student talk.
GIVE hope. Assure the student that things can get better. It is important to help them realize there are options, and that things will not always seem hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy or other professionals on campus. Recognize, however, that your purpose should be to provide enough hope to enable the student to consult a professional or other appropriate person and not to solve the student's problems.
AVOID judging, evaluating, and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. Such behavior is apt to push the student away from you and from the help they need. It is important to respect the student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.
MAINTAIN clear and consistent boundaries and expectations. It is important to maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student or staff/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations, exam schedules, etc. Also, it is important that you not be 'sworn to secrecy', in the event you need to consult with someone else about an urgent situation.
REFER: In making a referral it is important to point out that: 1) help is available and 2) seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure. It may be helpful to point out that seeking professional help for other problems (medical, legal, car problems, etc.) is considered good judgment and an appropriate use of resources. For example,
"If you had a broken arm you would go to a doctor rather than try to set it yourself." If you can, prepare the student for what they might expect if they follow your suggestion. Tell them what you know about the referral person or service.
FOLLOW-UP: Arrange a time to meet with the student again to solidify their resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist them in this process. Check later with the student to see that the referral appointment was kept and to hear how it went. Provide support while the student takes further appropriate action or pursues another referral if needed. Remember that, except in emergencies (i.e., a student presents an imminent danger to self or others), students are adults who may refuse a referral. Give such a student an opportunity to reconsider by attempting to address any concerns they may have about the referral. You may also offer other alternatives (e.g., off campus counseling).
CONSULT: When in doubt about the appropriateness of an intervention, call the Counseling Center (895-4292), the Dean of Students (895-4234), and/or Residence Life (895-4113). If an urgent concern about a student arises after office hours, contact Campus Safety (x4299) for assistance. A student whose behavior has become threatening, violent, or significantly disruptive may need a different kind of approach.
What Happens to a Student at the Counseling Center?
Walk-in services are rarely available so appointments are encouraged. Students should make their own appointments. You can assist this process by offering the student immediate use of your phone. Students can also make an appointment by visiting the Counseling Center. Office hours are 8:00am to 4:30pm, Monday through Friday. In an emergency situation, the student will be seen as soon as possible. All on-campus counseling services are free. Students need to know that services at the Counseling Center are confidential by law and ethical guidelines. You should note that this means Center staff are not able to verify a student’s attendance or any other mental health information without the student’s written permission.
At the first visit, the student completes information forms before meeting with a counselor (these will be waived temporarily in emergencies). During the initial interview, the counselor begins an assessment of the student's needs and the ways in which the Counseling Center might be able to help.
If the student and the counselor agree that further counseling is appropriate, the student may be offered short-term individual counseling on campus. Some students are referred to other campus service departments or to community resources for specialized services or continued counseling. Others may leave the initial interview feeling able to handle their problems on their own. Students can return to the Center if additional services would be useful.
If you have decided to help a student at risk, you may still have questions about how best to handle the situation. Staff members at the Counseling Center would be happy to help you:
- Assess the situation, its seriousness, and the potential for referral.
- Learn about resources, both on and off campus, so you can suggest the most appropriate help available when talking to the student.
- Find the best way to make the referral, if appropriate.
- Clarify your own feelings about the student and consider ways you can be most effective.
- Discuss follow-up concerns after the initial action or referral.
Cornell Counseling Center
Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Portions of the text of this brochure are reprinted with permission from a publication by The George Washington University - University Counseling Center.