Assisting the Emotionally Distressed Student: A Guide for Faculty and Staff
A Missouri Partners in Prevention publication
A printable guide is available in pdf:
As faculty and staff members, you are in good positions to recognize students who are in distress. To support your efforts, here is practical information about how to assist students effectively and access helping resources quickly. This brochure will discuss general signs that a student is in distress and how you might respond. It will also address special circumstances you might encounter, including the student with alcohol and drug problems, the student who has been victim of sexual assault, the student who has been a victim of discrimination or hate crimes, and the threatening or potentially dangerous student.
Recognizing Students in Distress
Distress is a natural part of life and no stranger to university students. Many students successfully cope with the realities of college life, but for some the stressors are overwhelming and unmanageable. And, unfortunately, a small number of students will be subjected to sexual assault, discrimination and hate crimes, and sexual harassment. Whatever the cause of students’ distress, the emotional and behavioral consequences are often played out on campus in classrooms, residence halls, or offices. Faculty and staff members will not be able to spot every such student, and not every student you approach will be willing to accept your assistance. Still, just by being available and ready to listen, you may play an important role in helping a student regain the emotional balance needed to cope with his or her circumstances and get back on track.
What to Look For:
1) Marked Changes in Academic Performance or Behavior
- Poor performance or lack of preparation
- Excessive absences or tardiness
- Repeated requests for special consideration especially when this represents a change from previous functioning
- Unusual or changed pattern of interactionAvoiding participation
- Domination of discussions
- Excessive anxiety when called upon
- Disruptive behavior
- Exaggerated emotional response obviously inappropriate to the situation
2) Unusual Behavior or Appearance
- Depressed or lethargic mood
- Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
- Unexplained crying
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- 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
3) References to Suicide, Homicide or Death
- Expressed thoughts of helplessness or hopelessness
- Overt references to suicide
- Isolation from friends or family
- Homicidal threats
What You Can Do:
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 for helpful responses:
- 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 patient listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel cared about as an individual and more confident about what to do.
- Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way.
- If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental 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.”
- Communicate under-standing by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you.
- Try to include both content and feelings (“It sounds like you ’re not accustomed to such a big campus and you’re feeling left out of things.”)
- Let the student talk.
4) Give Hope
- Assure the student that things will get better.
- Help the student realize that there are options and that things will not always seem hopeless.
- Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy or professional help on campus.
- Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations.
- Maintain the professional nature of the faculty/ student or staff/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations, exam schedules, etc.
6) Refer to other resources when:
- The problem is more serious than you feel comfortable handling.
- You are extremely busy, stressed, and cannot find the time to deal with the student.
- You have helped as much as you can and further assistance is needed.
- You think your personal feelings about the student will interfere with your objectivity.
- The student admits that there is a problem but doesn’t want to talk to you about it.
- The student asks for information or assistance that you are unable to provide.
How to Respond to Alcohol/Drug Abuse, Sexual Assault, Discrimination & Hate Crimes, and the Potentially Violent Student
All of the previous recommendations are still applicable for these special circumstances, but there are some important aspects to keep in mind if a student shows signs of distress in the following areas.
When Alcohol/Drugs are the Problem:
Many of the signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse are similar to the signs of distress listed previously. In addition, you might observe:
- Smell of alcohol or marijuana on breath or clothes
- Hand tremors
- Watery or blood-shot eyes
- Frequent bruises, cuts or other injuries
- Frequency of missed classes
- Continuous excuses for turning in work late or not at all
- Extreme negativism -don ’t care attitude
- Bragging about the amount of alcohol or other drugs they use
If you are concerned that a student is abusing alcohol or drugs, here are some helpful strategies:
- Care: Meet privately with the student to discuss your concerns in a non-judgmental, respectful fashion, showing the individual you care.
- Confront behaviors: You should take care to avoid making a judgment about the person and focus on behaviors instead. Connect your observations with the student ’s class performance (test scores, attendance issues), and let them know you want them to succeed.
- Know the basic facts: Use facts to substantiate your concern. Know that alcohol and drug use impairs mental alertness (loss of short-term memory and impairments in concentration), mood, motor behavior, interpersonal relation-ships, academic and work performance. Take some time to educate yourself about alcohol and drug problems.
- Use referral resources: It is not your job to diagnose or to “chase ” a student to get help, but you can refer the student to campus resources such as the Counseling Center (543-4060) and University Health Services (543-4770) to help them address a possible problem.
- You should expect to encounter: a lot of excuses, promises to change, attempts to challenge you, attempts to change the conversation to other subjects, and attempts to pass the behavior off as “no big thing.”
If your confrontation does not result in a referral for treatment:
- DO expect to feel helpless.
- DO expect denial of the problem by the user.
- DO continue to offer caring and behaviorally specific confrontations about the drinking problem.
- DON’T be discouraged. Seek support.
- DON’T nag, preach or lecture.
- DON’T make threats unless you intend to carry them out.
- DON’T try to protect the individuals from drinking situations.
- DON’T enable a person’s negative behavior by minimizing what has happened.
Helping A Sexually Assaulted Student:
If a student tells you she or he was sexually assaulted, here are specific tips to guide your response:
- Provide support and comfort.
Let the student know that you are concerned for his/her physical and emotional safety. Communicate clearly that what happened was wrong and not the student’s fault. Ask them what they need. Let the student talk and validate his/her emotional reactions.
- Assure the student’s confidentiality.
Don ’t tell others without permission.
- Encourage them to get medical care.
The student may have injuries or infections of which they are not aware. Immediately after the assault, most people are shocked and uncertain of what to do. If the assault was recent, encourage the student to get an evidence gathering exam at the emergency room at Western Missouri Medical Center. This will preserve evidence should the student decide to report the assault. Although they do not perform evidentiary exams, University Health Services has providers who are sensitive to the needs of students who have been assaulted/ abused. Call 543-4770 and tell the nurse the situation to ensure the student gets appropriate care. Even if the assault occurred some time ago, it is important to have a medical exam.
- Encourage the student to talk to others whom she/he trusts.
Encourage the student to seek the support and help of a trained counselor. Let him or her know that there are many people on campus who have helped many other individuals through similar situations. The Counseling Center (543-4060) and University Health Services (543-4770) provide free and confidential crisis management and counseling services to University students.
- Accept the student’s choices about how he or she wants to deal with the assault. Even if you disagree with the student, it is the student’s choice whether or not to report the assault, and whether or not to tell family members or others.
Responding to Discrimination/ Hate Crimes:
Sadly, university campuses are not immune to discrimination and hate crimes. Hate crimes are defined as violent acts against people, property, or organizations because of the group to which a person belongs. The violence can range from verbal harassment, threats, assault, and vandalism, to murder. Victims of hate crimes are likely to recover more quickly when they are given support and access to appropriate resources as soon as possible.
- DO offer them your full attention and support.
- DO encourage, but don’t pressure the student, to report the incident to Public Safety.
- DO help him or her think about a safety plan to respond to further incidents.
- DO refer the student to appropriate support agencies, for example, the Counseling Center or Alternative Lifestyles Organization at Central (ALOC).
Responding to Threatening or Potentially Dangerous Students:
A student whose behavior has become threatening, disruptive, or violent requires a different kind of approach. A very small number of students become aggressive when they are extremely frustrated by a situation that seems beyond their control. Students rarely become violent but it does occur and it is important to know how to respond. Here are some guidelines.
1) If you feel uneasy about a student’s behavior:
- DON’T ignore your feelings of unease, but discuss them with a colleague, your department chair, or someone from the Counseling Center. Identify exactly what is making you feel uneasy: maybe the student is rude, speaks in a loud or threatening manner, or makes veiled threats.
- DO meet with the student and ask him or her to change the behaviors that are causing a problem.
- DO make sure that other staff or faculty members are nearby when you meet with the student.
- DO refer the student for help with whatever might be causing the problem (e.g. stress, learning difficulties, or personal problems).
2) If a threatening or violent situation occurs during class:
- DO ask the student to accompany you to discuss the situation in the department office or somewhere where help is available.
- DON’T be alone or isolated with the student.
- DO seek help from the Public Safety and consult with Counseling Center staff as needed.
3) If you are alone with an angry, verbally abusive, or physically threatening student:
- DO acknowledge the student ’s anger and frustration calmly; “I can see how upset you are because you feel your rights are being violated and no one is listening to you.”
- DO allow the student to vent his or her feelings and frustrations.
- DO calmly tell the student that verbally abusive behavior is unacceptable: “When you yell and scream at me I find it hard to listen to you.”
- DON’T get into an argument or shouting match.
- DON’T become hostile or threatening (e.g., “I I’ll have you expelled from school.”).
- DON’T touch the student.
- DO leave, if possible.
- DO get help – Public Safety is available around the clock.
Who Can Help?
This is a brief list of resources available to assist students with their physical, emotional, and academic well-being. You are encouraged to call and consult about your concerns and how to make a successful referral.
Counseling Center 660-543-4060
Provides free and confidential services to students: crisis intervention, individual, couples, and group counseling. Regular hours are weekdays 8 a.m. - noon and 1 - 5 p.m. Humphreys Building, Suite 131.
University Health Services 660-543-4770
Provides medical services, health counseling services, and health education. Hours are 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Public Safety 660-543-4123, also 911
Offers emergency response for any crisis or safety concern.
What Students May Expect at the Counseling Center:
Students should make their own appointments if possible. You may assist by offering the student immediate use of your phone. Although there is frequently a waiting list for services, the receptionist will arrange for the student to meet with a staff member as soon as possible and there are daily openings for crisis situations.
NOTE: For help with crises after hours, a student may call 911,or go directly to the Western Missouri Medical Center ER.
At their appointment, the student completes information forms before meeting with a psychologist. This will take about 10-15 minutes. The student will then speak with a psychologist for an assessment interview. Treatment recommendations and necessary referrals may be made to best meet the student’s needs.
Much of the material in this publication was prepared by the Kansas State University Counseling Services and is used with their permission. We thank them for this important resource. The information on alcohol and drug abuse was prepared by the Wellness Resource Center and ADAPT office at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the information on sexual assault was prepared by the MU Rape Education Office,573-882-6638.
For additional resources, please visit our Resources and Self Help pages.
Click one of the following for a printable CC brochure: