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Responding to Students in Distress

A Guide for Instructors
When we look back, our college years seem to have been the best years of our lives. When we take a more critical look, the reality is often more stressful and difficult than we would like to remember. Although college students manage to have fun, college is also a time of incredible developmental changes that are not always easily handled.

For most, it is the first time away from home and family. It is also the first time they need to learn to manage time, money, relationships, academics, personal freedom, and decision-making regarding alcohol and other drug use, as well as plans for the future. The majority of students deal with the many transitions college brings with great success. However, for some students, the pressures can seem unmanageable.

With the many resources available on campus specifically for these purposes, why is it important for faculty members to have information about how to manage students in distress?

Students who are becoming overwhelmed by the pressures they experience will not leave their reactions in the residence halls or at home. Their confusion, anger, hurt, frustration, and anxiety come to class with them. That’s where faculty members enter the picture. Faculty members are often the first point of contact for students experiencing emotional difficulties. As a faculty member, your expression of interest and concern may mean the difference in college being the “best years”—in reality or merely memory—for a student.

It is not, of course, the responsibility of any faculty member to deal one-on-one with a student’s emotional difficulties, or to solve a student’s problems. Faculty can, however, play an extremely important role in referring students for help—not only because they are often in a position to first notice a student’s distress, but also because a student’s respect and regard for a professor play a role in their willingness to accept a referral.

We hope this information will be helpful to you if you encounter troubled students in your classes, and need to know how to direct them to the resources they need.

Recognizing students in distress
Everyone, at one time or another, has experienced unhappiness, depression, or anxiety. The “blues” are common to everyone, and usually don’t last long. Everyone experiences some anxiety when taking tests or speaking in front of groups. But we are able to identify certain patterns of behavior which, when present over a period of time, indicate that something is wrong, and professional help may be needed.

Behaviors that indicate emotional distress are not always disruptive to the classroom. However, faculty members are in a unique position to observe students’ behavior patterns.

Some behaviors that may not be disruptive, but may indicate a need for help, are:
  • A change from consistently good grades to unaccountably poor performance, or serious problems with grades.
  • Excessive absences. This is especially true if the student has previously demonstrated good attendance.
  • Markedly changed or unusual patterns of interaction with classmates or instructor. This may mean completely dominating a discussion, or avoiding any discussion whatsoever.
  • Other signs of emotional distress may include: depressed or lethargic behavior patterns, excessive activity or talking (rapid, pressured speech), red or swollen eyes, marked change in dress or personal hygiene, sweating when the room is not hot, or falling asleep in class.
Sometimes students, even those in significant distress, are reluctant or unable to acknowledge a need for help. Behaviors which may indicate severe distress include:
  • Repeated requests for special consideration—for example, deadline extensions, especially if the student seems uncomfortable or highly emotional when disclosing the reasons for the request.
  • Behavior, new or regularly occurring, that is significantly out of place or inappropriate and interferes with the effective management of the classroom.
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses that are inappropriate to the situation—for example, needing to leave the room upon presentation of certain material.
The disruptive student
Although it is fairly rare, some students are so disturbed that they become disruptive in the class situation. Many faculty members will make efforts to contain the situation and deal with it directly by speaking with the student after class about their behavior. There the student may reveal personal problems and a referral to the University’s Counseling Center can be made. Often, however, the first effort may not get results. Calling the Counseling Center for a consultation might prove to be helpful. Together, we may develop a strategy to deal with the disruptive behavior and get the student some help. Discussing the disruptive student with your Department Chair or Dean would also prove to be helpful, as would contacting the Dean of Students, who consults regularly with Counseling Center staff. In the case of a dangerous or threatening student, Campus Safety (703-284-1600) or 911 (if using on-campus phone), as well as the Counseling Center (703-526-6861) and the Dean of Students (703-284-1615), would be important calls to make.

Emergency situations
There are some behaviors which students will exhibit that indicate they are in crisis and need emergency attention. These include:
  • Highly disruptive behaviors, hostility, aggressiveness, violence, etc.
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, unconnected or disjointed thoughts).
  • Loss of contact with reality - for example, seeing or hearing things that aren’t there, or beliefs and behaviors that are greatly at odds with reality or probability.
  • Suicidal thoughts that are immediate, including plans, methods, and intent.
  • Homicidal thoughts directed at specific individuals or groups.
What you can do in an emergency
Crises are the easiest form of student distress to identify and, in some ways, the easiest to handle. Assistance and emergency referral procedures are outlined here for your convenience:
  • Stay calm. Try not to leave the student alone. Find someone to stay with him or her while calls are made to helping resources.
  • If a student directly threatens himself or herself or someone else, or otherwise behaves bizarrely, immediate attention is needed. Call:
    • Campus Safety: 703-284-1600 (24 hours); if on campus, call 911
    • Counseling Center: 703-526-6861 (Mon-Fri 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; after hours, call Campus Safety or the Student Health Center)
    • Student Health Center: 703-284-1610
    • Dean of Students: 703-284-1615
  • Stay with the student, or have someone stay with the student, until help arrives.
  • If you feel physically threatened by a student, your first priority is your own safety. Call Campus Safety immediately if you feel your life is threatened, and get yourself to a safe place.
  • Please note that confidentiality is maintained by Counseling Center staff in non-emergency counseling situations. However, it is critical that communication occur openly during crisis situations. Instructors should provide as much information as possible (including names of students and other identifying information) to Counseling Center staff members when consulting about students in crisis.
Helping the distressed student not needing emergency assistance
Some situations are not as obvious to identify as a crisis, yet you may know that something needs to be done. We hope the information in this section will help you deal with those less clear-cut situations.

You have a variety of choices for dealing with behavior which indicate to you that a student may be troubled, but not in crisis. You may choose to ignore it, handle it in a “strictly business” way (i.e., in terms only with respect to the classroom), or you may choose to handle it more personally. Calling the Counseling Center may be helpful in deciding which course of action you would like to take.

If you decide to approach the student or the student approaches you directly, and you decide to handle the problem personally:
  • Give the student your undivided attention by discussing the matter privately. Just a few minutes of effective listening by faculty can make a large difference in a student’s perception of a problem ... and, often, of the university.
  • Express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental terms. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve had some absences lately, and I’m concerned.”
  • Let the student talk. Try to communicate to the student that you have listened to what was said. Try to repeat back or paraphrase the important parts of what was said.
  • Help the student clarify advantages and disadvantages of various courses of action for handling what the student perceives to be the problem.
  • Avoid judgments, evaluations, and criticisms, as they may make the student less inclined to talk with you. Even if you don’t agree with the student’s value system, try to respect it. It is important to identify your opinions clearly as yours, not what you think the student should think.
The student who asks for exceptions to the rule—incompletes, extensions, “reasonable” accommodations, and so forth
Often student problems have a negative impact on their academic work, and they find it difficult to follow through on their academic responsibilities. They come to faculty with involved tales of interpersonal or family difficulties, which they hope will elicit sympathy and produce an incomplete/extension from the faculty member. To spare the faculty member the problems involved in separating a legitimate excuse (“beyond the student’s control”) from one that is more manipulative, the Counseling Center may be able to make a recommendation to you after meeting with the student.

Occasionally, students will tell you they have a learning or psychological disability and request special academic accommodations. In these circumstances a referral to the Counseling Center or to Disability Support Services (DSS; 703-284-6925) would be appropriate. DSS can make specific recommendations regarding “reasonable” academic accommodations. In some circumstances, the Counseling Center may advise DSS staff regarding a student situation (with the student’s written permission), and/or conduct an evaluation to augment the documentation being reviewed by the DSS staff. In short, Counseling Center and/or DSS staff can indicate to you whether there is enough evidence to warrant a deviation from the rules. Client confidentiality will be maintained; therefore, we may not be able to share with you any specific details about the student’s situation.

Faculty and teaching assistants often seek consultation regarding disturbing comments or revelations in student writings or artwork. Such content often includes self-disclosure about abuse or trauma, bizarre content in e-mail messages, dangerous threats or pronouncements, or art work reflective of traumatic events or violence. Students in question may or may not also exhibit bizarre or disruptive classroom behavior.

Responding to disturbing content in students’ writing
Sometimes, troubled students may come to an instructor’s attention primarily through written communication, rather than face-to-face interactions. The following represent some signs that a student may be troubled:
  • The organization of written material may exhibit a bizarre, incoherent, or dreamy quality. Often the written content moves from item to item in an associative rather than a linear fashion, exhibiting more of a symbolic rather than a logical thought process.
  • Often there may be a preponderance of dark, negative, or jarring themes and images. Sexual themes, violence and death may be eerily but unskillfully portrayed.
  • Frequent use of profanity.
  • The work is a dramatic departure from the student’s social demeanor or apparent affect.
We realize there are many ways in which an individual expresses him/herself; however, the presence of such features in student work may indicate an effort, albeit distorted and unconscious, to communicate something of deep personal importance. The recommendation is that the instructor seek consultation with appropriate department supervisors and the Counseling Center before confronting the student directly.

There may be occasions when it is appropriate to obtain additional information about the student in question, or have him/her come to the Counseling Center for evaluation. In such cases, the necessary steps will be taken to arrange this. In accordance with the requirements of confidentiality, it will not be possible for the Counseling Center to reveal any clinical data that may exist regarding the student, or even if the student is currently a Counseling Center client. We will, however, consult with you and provide some suggestions for follow-up.

The central question will be to determine if the student’s expressions are evidence of severe mental illness, if the student is a danger to self or others, or if some type of treatment or intervention is warranted. Whenever appropriate, the Counseling Center will work closely and consult with the Dean of Students, the Health Center, and Campus Safety.

Consultation and/or assessment in such cases has, at times, revealed the existence of an emotional problem. At other times, however, we have found that some students were unaware that they had created a problem for others, or were unintentionally violating cultural or social norms. Regardless of the student’s understanding of the impact their work on others, it is important and appropriate to evaluate aberrant or potentially dangerous student expression and, if necessary, intervene.

The worst response is no response. However, you do not need to respond immediately to e-mails, notes, or calls from the student if you do not feel comfortable doing so. It is suggested that you consult with your department chair and/or Counseling Center staff before responding to the student. Sometimes, faculty members respond to students in an enabling way, sometimes in an effort to let the student down easy. It is recommended that you refrain from making promises, commitments, or personal comments in your response to the student.

If the appropriate opportunity presents itself, you should express your concern to the student about his/her about the content of his/her writing or communication. You might suggest to the student that you would like to delay grading the assignment or responding to the written communication in question until you and the student can discuss things further—this also provides you with time to consult as necessary. The reaction of the student to this form of intervention may elucidate the nature of the student’s motivation and increase their awareness of the behavior. It will also help you determine if the student was merely acting sensationally, immaturely, or was merely unaware or insensitive to appropriate socio-cultural or university norms.

Keep copies of all communication with the student. Factual feedback to the student will depend on having an accurate record of agreements, comments, e-mails, and so forth.

Making a Referral
There are many times when it is clearly not in anyone’s best interest for you to try to handle a student’s distress personally. You may not be able to give enough time, or may know that your personality differences will get in the way, or may genuinely dislike the student. Whatever the reason or reasons, there are times it is best to turn the problem over to someone else.

Some students will accept a referral for help more readily than others. How you make the referral can make all the difference in whether it is accepted, and how the student perceives your need to make the referral.

Be frank with the student about your limitations in ability to help. Most will understand that you don’t have the time or training, or simply that your role/function at the university is not to solve students’ problems. It means a lot, however, that you care enough to try to help. You can also be invaluable in dispelling some of the stereotypes that surround the idea of counseling.

Students may feel that they have to be severely disturbed or, at the very least, know exactly what is wrong with them in order to seek counseling. It can be very comforting for them to know that many students seek counseling, and that often they do so because they are confused about what they are feeling or thinking.

There are three ways in which you can make a referral to the Counseling Center:
  • You can tell students about the Counseling Center. This tends to be least likely to succeed, as the student may procrastinate in following up on the information.
  • You can encourage the student to call and make an appointment. This is usually best done while they are still with you, and you can work out a mutually agreeable time for their appointment.
  • You can come to the Counseling Center with them while they set up the appointment. This tends to be the most successful type of referral, and students are most likely to follow up. You may even, with the student’s permission, sit in on part of the first session.
What happens when you refer to the Counseling Center
If you are experiencing a crisis situation, you should contact the Counseling Center during its normal operating hours, and someone will talk with you immediately. If you happen to encounter voicemail, then hang up and contact the Student Health Center, the Dean of Students office, or Campus Safety. Upon consultation, and depending on the circumstances, a Counseling Center or Health Center staff member may come to the scene, or it may be decided that Campus Safety should respond immediately. From that point on, the situation is usually handled exclusively by Counseling Center or Health Center staff, and/or Campus Safety. Once students have direct contact with the Counseling Center, we consider them clients, and we are boundby confidentiality regarding our conversations with them. With the student’s written permission, we may provide you with limited details about how their situation is being managed.

What students can expect when they come to the Counseling Center
Some students are reluctant to go to the Counseling Center because they don’t know what to expect. Upon arrival, all students are asked to fill out an intake form, which is a basic information form. This is kept as part of their confidential file, which is kept separate from their academic record. Many students wonder if counseling appointments or information will somehow end up on their “permanent record.” The answer is no. All sessions are free, private, and confidential. Only with the student’s written permission are we free to share information with anyone. Again, however, information may be shared during situations of imminent threat of bodily harm to oneself or others.

Students will meet with a member of the counseling staff for about an hour, or perhaps less, depending upon the situation. Some crises require more time, so we try to give students all the time they need.

Students will usually see whoever has the first available opening at the time the appointment is made. However, students may feel free to request to speak with a specific member of the staff, if they like. During busy times, however, this may present the student with a delay in being seen.

During the first session, the counselor will usually try to ascertain what the problem or issue is. They will try to see if counseling is the best approach to it and give a brief explanation of the counseling process. The counselor will usually wind up by asking the student if they wish to make another appointment, wait and call if they need to talk more, or would like a referral to another person or agency.

The information included here is adapted from materials created by the Counseling Center staff at SUNY-Binghamton, and is used with permission..