How to recognize & assist students
College students typically encounter a great deal of stress (i.e. academic, social, family, work, financial) during the course of their educational experiences. While most of them cope successfully with the demands of college life, for some the pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable. Students having difficulty have a number of resources available to them. These include close friends, relatives, clergy, coaches, head residents, collegiate fellows, work supervisors, administrators, support staff, and faculty. In fact, anyone who is seen as caring and trustworthy may be a potential resource in time of trouble.
We believe there is a powerful rationale for people to intervene when they encounter distressed students: The inability to cope effectively with emotional stress poses a serious threat to students' learning ability. Expressions of interest and concern may be a critical factor in helping a struggling student reestablish the emotional equilibrium necessary for academic survival and success.
Your willingness to respond to students in distress will undoubtedly be influenced by your personal style and your philosophy about helping students grow emotionally as well as intellectually. Obviously, a student's openness to assistance and such situational factors as length and depth of your relationship, and the location of your contact, may have a substantial effect on the type of interactions you can have with a student.
We hope this information will not only help you assess what can sometimes be difficult situations, but will also give you some specific ideas about what you can do when confronted with a student who is in distress.
At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. But we can identify three general levels of distress which, when present over a period of time, suggest that the problems the person is dealing with are more than "normal" ones.
These behaviors, although not disruptive to others, may indicate that something is wrong and that help may be needed:
- Serious grade problems, or a change from consistently good grades to unaccountably poor grades
- Excessive absences, especially if the student has previously demonstrated good, consistent class attendance
- Unusual or markedly changed patterns of interaction, including: completely avoiding participation, becoming excessively anxious when called upon, dominating discussions, being excessively active, speaking extremely rapidly, falling asleep in class
- Significant difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or answering simple questions
- Depressed, lethargic mood
- Unusual physical appearance including: swollen, red eyes; a marked change in personal dress or hygiene; sweating (when the room is not hot); a significant increase or decrease in weight
These behaviors may indicate significant emotional distress, but also a reluctance or inability to acknowledge a need for more personal help:
- Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions, especially if the student appears highly uncomfortable or highly emotional disclosing the circumstances prompting the request
- New or regularly occurring behavior that pushes the limits of decorum, and which interferes with the effective management of class, work, or living area
- Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses to situations
- Expressed hostility toward you, friends, parents, classmates, or others
These behaviors are obviously inappropriate and/or indicate a crisis which needs immediate attention:
- Highly disruptive behavior that is hostile, aggressive, or violent
- Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, unconnected or disjointed thoughts)
- Loss of contact with reality (auditory or visual hallucinations, beliefs or actions that are greatly at odds with reality or probability)
- Disorientation to time, place, or people
- Overtly suicidal thoughts
- Homicidal thoughts
These problems are the easiest to identify, and specific procedures for helping students in crisis have been delineated. You need to stay calm and know who to call for help. That information is outlined in the section of this document titled Emergency Assistance and Referrals.
Mild or Moderate
In dealing with a student who shows mild or moderate levels of distress, you have several choices. You can choose not to deal with it at all; deal directly with the request or disruptive behavior in a way that limits your interaction to the classroom issue; or you can deal with the situation on a more personal level.
If you choose to approach a student you are concerned about, or if a student seeks you out for help, here are some suggestions that might make the opportunity more comfortable for you and more helpful to the student.
- Talk to the student in private when neither of you will be rushed or preoccupied. Give the student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel comfortable about what to do next.
- If you initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, you might say, "I've noticed you've been absent from class lately, and I'm concerned."
- Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, nonthreatening way. Let the student talk, and communicate that you understand.
- Explore what the student has done previously to resolve the problem, and why those attempts have not been successful. Work with the student to clarify what she or he perceives to be the costs and benefits of other options for handling the problem.
- Avoid judging, evaluating, or criticizing unless the student specifically asks for your opinion. Such behavior is apt to close the student off from you and from getting the help needed. It is important to respect the student's value system, which may be undergoing challenges or change, even if you do not agree with it.
Even though a student asks for help with a problem and you are willing to help, there are circumstances that may indicate that you should refer a student to a professional resource. Some of these situations include:
- The problem or request is beyond your expertise
- Personality differences will interfere with your ability to help
- You know the student personally, and do not believe you could be objective enough to help
- The student acknowledges the problem, but is reluctant to talk to you about it
- After working with the student for some time, little progress has been made and you do not know how to proceed
- You are feeling overwhelmed, pressed for time, or otherwise are at a high level of stress yourself
- There is immediate danger to the student or someone else (i.e. suicide, homicide, abuse, assault, harassment, etc.). In these situations, it is important to refer to another College office.
Some people accept a referral for professional help more easily than others. It is usually best to be frank with students about the limits of your availability to assist them -- limits of time, energy, training, and objectivity. It is often reassuring to students to hear that you respect their willingness to talk to you, and that you want to support them in getting the assistance they need.
When proposing a referral, it is best to do so in a direct and positive manner. There are many kinds of referrals. The best one is the kind to which a particular student will respond. Depending on the situation, have the student consider friends, clergy, family members, community agencies, and campus offices, especially those in the Division of Student Affairs. Tell the student what you know about the person or referral service, being as specific as possible about the kind of help the student can expect.
Assure students that seeking help does not necessarily mean they have serious problems. It is possible that their concern is one of the common reasons that college students seek help from another person. These include feeling down or low on energy and motivation; experiencing difficulties in relationships with their family, friends, or romantic partner; feeling anxious or depressed; and having concerns about future goals or plans. Confused students may be comforted to know that they do not necessarily have to know what is wrong before they ask for help.
If the student agrees to be referred, suggest that she or he call to make an appointment immediately. The student should make the appointment if possible, rather than you making it for him or her. You can increase the chances that she or he will attend the appointment if you tell the student that you would like to hear how the meeting went and request that the student let you know about it.
If the student is reluctant to talk to anyone, you can call the Counseling Center to consult about the situation.
If you have chosen to follow through with a student, you may still have some questions about how best to handle the situation. Staff members at the Counseling Center would be pleased to help you:
- Assess the situation, its seriousness, and potential for referral.
- Learn about resources, both on and off campus, so you can suggest the most appropriate help available when talking with the student.
- Clarify your own feelings about the student and consider the ways you can be most effective.
For consultation from the Counseling Center, call Extension 7027, or drop by 204 Johnson Student Union to set up an appointment.
- Consultation, Evaluation, Treatment, and Referral
- Counseling Center:933-7027
- Transportation and/or Protection (24 hours)
- Campus Safety: 933-8888
- St. Peter Police: 931-1550
- Emergency Consultation, Evaluation, Treatment, and Referral
- Counseling Center: 933-7027
- Dean of Students: 933-7526