Tips for Faculty

FACULTY HANDBOOK RESOURCE: Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress

Identifying and helping a student in distress

The following guidelines may help you assess what can sometimes be a difficult situation and give you some specific ideas about what you can do when confronted with students who are distressed:

Overview

College students typically encounter a great deal of stress – academic, social, family, work, financial, spiritual – during the course of the educational experience. While most students cope successfully with demands of college life, for some, the pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable. The inability to cope effectively with emotional stress poses a serious threat to students’ learning ability.

Your expression of interest and concern may be a critical factor in helping a struggling student reestablish the emotional equilibrium necessary for a fulfilling college experience. Your willingness to respond to students in distress will undoubtedly be influenced by your personal style and your particular philosophy about the boundaries of your responsibility for helping students.

How do I recognize a student in distress?

  • Serious academic trouble: declining grades, multiple unexplained class absences, loss of motivation or investment in school.
  • Disruptive behavior: aggressiveness, violating others’ rights with little provocation.
  • Exaggerated emotional responses: angry outbursts, sudden or excessive tearfulness or giddiness.
  • Persistent depression: crying, low energy, irritability, decline in personal appearance, helplessness/hopelessness, loss of control, emotional flatness.
  • Changed social relationships: withdrawal from friends or other sources of support, or sudden over-dependence on people.
  • Increased physical complaints: headaches, indigestion, nausea, stomach pains, loss or gain in weight.
  • Increased alcohol or drug use.

How can I help a distressed student?

  • Listen: Support begins with listening.
  • Empathize: Try to understand the student from his or her perspective.
  • Normalize: Reassure the student that many college students feel overwhelmed and stressed out.
  • Set limits on your role: When the support you are comfortable providing doesn’t feel like enough, it is time to refer the student to other resources.
  • De-stigmatize counseling: Take the anxiety out of seeking help. Counseling is here for the students because college is a time for growth and development, which can sometimes be difficult.

When should I refer a student to counseling?

Sometimes, professional assistance can best help the student to manage the demands and developmental challenges of college.
Counseling Services is here to help. It is time to refer the student to counseling when:

  • You don’t know how to help the student or the issues are outside your area of expertise.
  • You feel unable to provide all of the support the student needs.
  • You feel that you have reached your limit or have exhausted your ideas on how to help. Boundaries are healthy to have in place!
  • The student’s struggles leave you feeling helpless or anxious.
  • You feel angry or intimidated by the student’s comments or behavior.
  • You are spending large amounts of time on the student’s problems.
  • The student’s issues are too close to home for you, making it hard to keep perspective.

How do I refer a student to counseling?

Here are some pointers:

  • Share with the student your interest in his or her well-being.
  • Emphasize that the choice to seek professional guidance is up to the student.
  • Give the student the option to call Counseling Services (4317) from your office.
  • Offer to call Counseling Services on the student’s behalf while he or she is with you.
  • Remember that referring to Counseling Services can help the student begin to help himself or herself.

What should I tell the student about the counseling office?

  • Suggested phrases to use:
    • “We have counselors on campus and their offices are located in the University Commons, second floor, Wellness Suite – same place as the Health Center.”
    • “I would encourage you to just try one session to see if counseling could help.”
  • Information the student shares with the counselor is confidential except when the student discloses potential harm to self or others.
  • There is no cost to the student for the initial consultation and up to seven more sessions of counseling. This is a benefit provided to students when enrolled at Eastern Mennonite University. The number of sessions needed will be determined between the counselor and the student. Sessions required after the total eight free sessions may be continued for a minimal fee of $15 per session, depending upon demand for services.
  • Individual or group counseling sessions are short-term and may include referral to professionals outside the college.
  • Typical issues discussed with the counselor include anxiety, depression or sadness, relationships break-ups or problems, grief, sexual abuse or assault, sexuality concerns, stress, eating disorders, family problems, and personal growth.

What do I do in an emergency?

If a student is violent, out of control, or in immediate danger of physically harming himself or herself:

  • Call 911 in any situation you feel might result in immediate harm and needs immediate assistance.
  • During office hours, call the Wellness Suite (Ext. 4317) and make it clear that this is an emergency. Ask to speak to an available counselor.
  • If a counselor is not available, contact the Student Life offices at ext. 4135.