Most college students will encounter some type of personal, social or academic stressors. For many, these stressors are transient and students are able to successfully manage the challenges of college life. As faculty and staff you are often the first to become aware of those students for which these stressors have become overwhelming. You play a central role in a student's help-seeking efforts as you are often in a direct position to observe students and be aware of their behavior. Students frequently turn to faculty and staff like you to obtain advice and support. Although you are not expected to provide psychological counseling, it is helpful for you to understand the critical role you can play in supporting students in need of help. A student in emotional distress can be helped greatly by a faculty member’s expression of concern.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT STUDENT PROBLEMS
Stress, pressures, and problems are a normal part of college life. While many students cope with these demands successfully, a significant number of students have difficulties that interfere with their performance and general well-being. A review of the mental health research literature on university students reveals that:
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT CHARACTERISTICS OF DISTRESSED OR DISTRESSING STUDENTS
Sometimes it is very clear when a student is having difficulty coping and sometimes their distress is masked with less obvious characteristics. Some obvious and not-so-obvious signs of distress to look for are:
MARKED CHANGES IN ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE OR BEHAVIOR
TRAUMATIC CHANGE IN ACADEMIC STATUS
TRAUMATIC CHANGE IN RELATIONSHIPS
REFERENCES TO SUICIDE OR HOMICIDE
OTHER COMMON STRESSORS THAT STUDENTS EXPERIENCE
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT RESPONDING TO DISTRESSED OR DISTRESSING STUDENTS
Because you come in frequent contact with many students, you are in an excellent position to observe students, identify those who are in distress, and offer assistance. Your care, concern, and assistance will often be enough to help the student. At other times, you can play a critical role in referring a student for appropriate assistance and in motivating him/her to seek such help. A few guidelines for responding to distressed or distressing students are summarized below:
The first important step in assisting distressed students is to be familiar with the symptoms of distress and attend to their occurrence. An attentive observer will pay close attention to direct communications as well as implied or hidden feelings.
Don't ignore strange, inappropriate or unusual behavior — respond to it! Talk to the student privately, in a direct and matter-of-fact manner. Tell the student specifically what you have observed. Express your concern. Early feedback, intervention, and/or referral can prevent more serious problems from developing. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.
Listening has frequently been called an art, but it is also a skill that can be acquired with practice. To listen to someone is to refrain from imposing your own point of view, to withhold advice unless it is requested, and to concentrate on the feelings and thoughts of the person you are trying to help, instead of your own. Listening is probably the most important skill used in helping and can be facilitated by allowing the student enough time and latitude to express thoughts and feelings as fully as possible. Some things to listen for include a student's view of him/herself; view of his/her current situation or environment and the view of the future. Negative comments about these issues indicate a student may be in trouble.
OFFER SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE
Among the most important helping tools are interest, concern, and attentive listening. Avoid criticism or judgmental comments. Summarize the essence of what the student has told you as a way to clarify the situation. Encourage positive action by helping the student define the problem and generate coping strategies. Suggest resources that the student can access: friends, family, clergy, or professionals on campus.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and referring them for further help. As a help-giver; only go as far as your expertise, training, and resources allow. Trust your feelings when you think an individual's problem is more than you can handle.
When a student needs more help than you are able or willing to give, it is time to make a referral to a professional. Below are some signs to look for in your feelings that may suggest the assistance of a professional is warranted:
CONSULT WITH UNIVERSITY COUNSELING CENTER (UCC) STAFF
In your attempt to help a student, you may need to talk with a professional. The UCC staff counselors can suggest possible approaches to take with students or provide you with support. Call (361) 825-2703 to speak with a UCC counselor. If your situation is an emergency, tell the receptionist you wish to speak to a staff member immediately.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MAKING A REFERRAL TO THE UNIVERSITY COUNSELING CENTER
You may be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and referring students for further help. You are not expected to provide psychological counseling and may want to refer distressed students to the UCC. UCC professional staff are trained to assess for emotional problems and psychological disorders; provide short-term counseling to enrolled students; and assist with the referral process to community providers when more assistance is needed.
When you have decided that professional counseling is indicated, inform the student in a direct, concerned, and straightforward manner.
Suggest that the student call or come in to make an appointment.
Sometimes it is useful and necessary to assist the student more directly to make an appointment.
If you are concerned about a student, but unsure about the appropriateness of the referral, feel free to call the UCC at (361) 825-2703 for a consultation with a professional staff member.
AFTER THE REFERRAL TO COUNSELING
The UCC does not release information to anyone within the University about who has been seen or is currently being seen at the Counseling Center without first receiving the student’s written permission. Therefore, under most circumstances, in order to find out whether a student has followed through with a referral, you will have to directly ask the student.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT RESPONDING TO STUDENT EMERGENCIES
Emergency situations are rare; however, immediate and decisive action is necessary when they do occur. Generally, a psychological emergency involves one or more of the following conditions:
In the event of an emergency, it is helpful to follow these basic guidelines:
The primary campus resources for responding to mental health emergencies are the University Counseling Center, the University Police Department and the Division of Student Affairs. The following options are available to you:
After hours and weekends: Call (361) 825-2703 and press 2 to speak with a crisis counselor.
This material was adapted from the publication ‘Responding to Distressed or Distressing Students’ created by the Counseling and Psychological Services of the University of California-Davis. We thank Dr. Emil Rodolpha, Director of CAPS, for giving permission to adapt and use it for our purposes.