Helping Distressed Students

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.


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:

  • 85% of college counseling centers reported an increase in the number of students they treat for psychological disorders (AUCCCD, 2001)
  • 67% of graduate students reported feeling hopeless, 45% said they felt so depressed they could barely function (UC Berkeley, 2004)
  • Between 1988 and 2001, the number of students reporting depressed feelings has doubled; 6% reported eating disorders (Benton, 2003)
  • Only 11% of college students were getting a good night's sleep (Buboltz, 2002)
  • About 31% of college students met the criteria for alcohol abuse and 6% met the criteria for alcohol dependence (NACNI AAA: Task, Force on College Drinking, 2002)
  • Over 9% of college students meet the criteria for anxiety disorders (NIMH, 2000)
  • About 12% of students had been diagnosed with depression, 24% of those students were in therapy seeking help with their depression, 35% were taking medicine for depression (ACHA, 2002)
  • 56% of students felt things were hopeless during the last year, 88% felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, 39% felt so depressed they found it difficult to function, 9% considered suicide and about 1% attempted suicide (ACHA, 2003)
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students (Jed Foundation, 2002)


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:


  • Excessive absences or tardiness, especially if representing a previous change in functioning
  • Repeated requests for special considerations or extensions
  • Exaggerated emotional response obviously inappropriate to the situation
  • Depressed or disturbing content in written work
  • Increased dependence - student makes excessive appointments to see you during office hours


  • Academic Probation
  • Academic Dismissal


  • Listlessness, lack of energy, or falling asleep in class
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Questions that reveal excessive confusion
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene
  • Impaired speech or disjointed, confused thoughts
  • Aggressive or threatening behavior
  • Extreme mood changes or excessive, inappropriate display of emotions
  • Hyperactivity, irritability, or heightened anxiety
  • Prolonged or extreme emotionality
  • Dramatic weight loss or weight gain with no apparent physical illness / reason
  • Bizarre or strange behavior indicating a loss of contact with reality
  • Use of mood altering chemicals (e.g. alcohol or other drugs)


  • Death of a family member or close friend
  • Difficulties in marriage or close relationships
  • Problems with family or roommates


  • Overt (or veiled) references to suicide - verbally or in writing
  • Statements of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Indications of persistent or prolonged unhappiness
  • Isolated self from friends and family
  • Pessimistic feelings about the future
  • Homicidal threats


  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Identity confusion
  • Break-up of intimate relationships
  • Low motivation or inability to establish goals
  • Serious illness
  • Academic pressure or failure
  • Parenting responsibilities
  • Cultural oppression / discrimination
  • Outside work or family pressures
  • Rejection by family


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.


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.


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:

  • You find yourself feeling responsible for the student
  • You see a behavioral pattern repeating itself in your interaction
  • You feel pressure to solve their problems
  • You feel you are over-extending yourself in helping the student with the student
  • You feel stressed-out by the student's issue(s) or behavior
  • You feel that the problems a student brings to you are more than you can handle
  • You feel anxious when the student approaches you


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.


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.

  • Because many students initially resist the idea of counseling, it is useful to be caring, but firm, in your judgment that counseling will be useful; to be clear and concrete regarding the reason you are concerned; and to be familiar with the procedures for referring to counseling services and other help-giving agencies on campus.
  • Except in emergencies, it is important to allow students to accept or refuse counseling.

Suggest that the student call or come in to make an appointment.

  • Give the student the UCC phone number - (361) 825-2703.
  • Remind the student that UCC services are free and confidential.
  • If students would like more information before calling, they can visit the UCC website at

Sometimes it is useful and necessary to assist the student more directly to make an appointment.

  • In these instances, you can offer the use of your phone, or you can call the UCC yourself while the student is in your office. Ultimately the student must be the one who schedules the appointment.
  • Occasionally, you may think it wise to actually walk the student over to the UCC. This can be especially helpful to students who are unsure about the location and/or are intimidated about meeting with a counselor for the first time.

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.


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.


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:

  • A suicidal attempt, gesture, threat, or stated intention
  • A homicidal attempt, gesture, threat, or stated intention
  • Behavior posing a threat to self
  • Behavior posing a threat to others
  • Loss of contact with reality
  • Inability to care for oneself

In the event of an emergency, it is helpful to follow these basic guidelines:

  • Stay calm, as this will help you respond more effectively, and also help to reduce the student’s anxiety or agitation
  • If possible, provide a quiet, private place for the student to rest while further steps are taken
  • Talk to the student in a clear, straight-forward manner
  • If the student appears to be dangerous to self or others, do not leave the student unattended
  • Make arrangements for appropriate intervention or aid
  • Take all suicidal or homicidal threats, hints, and notes seriously

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:

  • Phone consultation with a UCC staff counselor is available during work hours. Call (361) 825-2703.
  • You can also walk the student over to the UCC for an emergency consultation or appointment during work hours. Please call the UCC if you plan to do this.
  • If the student is uncooperative, unusually aggressive or otherwise unmanageable, or you otherwise need immediate assistance, contact the University Police immediately at (361) 825-4444.
  • Notify the Division of Student Engagement & Success of all student emergencies at (361) 825-2612 (even if you have consulted with UCC or UPD). Ask to speak with Ms. Angela Walker, Associate Dean of Students or Ms. Ann Degaish, Associate Vice President. 
  • If your situation is an emergency, tell the receptionist you wish to speak to a staff member or officer immediately.
  • Be prepared to provide as much information as possible about the student and the situation to the campus resources you contact.

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.