RECOGNIZING & DEALING WITH STUDENTS IN EMOTIONAL DISTRESS
Faculty as Helping Resources for Students
College students typically encounter a great deal of stress (i.e., academic, social, family, job, financial) during the course of their educational experience. While most students cope successfully with the 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’ ability to learn. Therefore, your expression of interest and concern may be critical factors in helping a struggling student re-establish the emotional equilibrium necessary for academic survival and success.
The following information will not only help you assess what sometimes can be difficult situations, but will give you specific ideas about what to do when confronted with a student who is in distress.
Recognizing Troubled Students
At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. But there are identifiable behaviors, when present over a period of time that can suggest the problems the student is dealing with are more than “normal” ones. We can identify three general levels of student distress:
These behaviors, although not disruptive to others in your class, may indicate that something is wrong and the student may need help:
- Serious grade problems or a change from consistently good grades to unaccountably poor performance.
- Excessive absences, especially if the student had demonstrated consistent class attendance.
- Unusual or markedly changed patterns of interaction, i.e., totally avoiding participation, becoming excessively anxious when called upon, dominating discussions, etc.
Other characteristics that suggest the student is having trouble managing stress include a depressed lethargic mood, being excessively active or talkative (very rapid speech), swollen red eyes, marked change in personal dress and hygiene, sweaty (when the room is not hot), and falling asleep in class.
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 uncomfortable or highly emotional when disclosing the circumstances prompting the request.
- New or regularly occurring behavior which pushes the limits of decorum and which interferes with the effective management of your class.
- Unusual or exaggerated emotional response to situations.
These behaviors are obviously inappropriate and indicate a need for emergency intervention:
- Highly disruptive behavior (extreme hostility, aggressiveness, violence, etc.)
- Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, unconnected or disjointed thoughts).
- Loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things which “aren’t there,” beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability).
- Overtly suicidal expressions (referring to suicide as a current option).
- Homicidal thoughts expressed.
What Can You Do? Hints for Dealing with Distressed/Tearful/Upset Students
Level 3 problems are the easiest to identify. If you encounter a crisis situation, call Campus Security at x7123 or (call 911) immediately. During weekdays, you can also follow-up with Dr. Jane Fink X8767 for consultation after the campus police have dealt with the situation.
In dealing with a student who shows Level 1 or Level 2 behavior, you have several choices. You can choose to not deal with it at all. You can deal directly with the disruptive behavior in a way that limits your discussion to what is happening in the classroom. Or you can deal with the situation on a more personal level.
If you choose to approach a student you’re concerned about or if a student seeks you out for help with personal problems, here are some suggestions that might make the interaction more helpful for the student – and more comfortable for you:
- Firstly, try and stay as relaxed as you can in your dealings with the student. This will also help the student to feel more relaxed and calmer.
- If you feel confident to do so, accompany the student to a quiet area (although not isolated), and remember to notify a colleague of your whereabouts.
- 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 the student starts to discuss any issue you feel may have legal implications (e.g. assault, rape, a child protection matter, illegal drug use, etc) advise the student that you will need to speak to your department Coordinator as soon as possible. You should also state that you can not promise confidentiality.
- Explain sensitively that you are not a licensed counselor, and that you are there to listen, but not to advise.
- If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms (e.g. “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class lately and I’m concerned,” rather than “Where have you been lately? Goofing off again?”).
- It is important that you describe specifically to the student the behaviors that have raised your concern. You should avoid global statements like, “You’ve been acting strange lately.” Such statements give the student no real information and may lead the student to feel judged, self-conscious, or defensive.
- If, after describing the behaviors that concern you, the student does not seem willing to talk, you may want to tell the student about the free professional counseling services that are available.
- You should avoid giving personal details (such as mobile phone or home phone) and you should resist temptation to offer a lift anywhere. You should be mindful of your personal safety and professional reputation at all time and not put yourself at risk!
When Should You Make a Referral?
Even though a student asks for help with a problem and you are willing to help, there are circumstances in which you should suggest the student use another resource. For example:
- The problem or request for information is one you know you can’t handle.
- You believe that personality differences will interfere with your ability to help.
- You know the student personally (as a friend, neighbor, friend of a friend) and think you could not be objective enough to really help.
- The student acknowledges the problem but is reluctant to discuss it with you.
- After working with a student for some time, you find that little progress has been made and you don’t know how to proceed.
- You are feeling overwhelmed, pressed for time, or otherwise at a high level of stress yourself.
Making a Referral
Some people accept a referral for professional help more easily than others. It is often reassuring to a student to hear that you respect their willingness to talk to you, and that you want to support them in connecting to the assistance they need. But it is best to be frank with a student about the limits of your ability to assist them – limits of time, energy, training and/or objectivity.
Assure the student that seeking help doesn’t necessarily mean that they have “serious” problems, and it doesn’t mean they’re “crazy.” Distressed students may be comforted to know that they don’t necessarily have to know what’s wrong before they ask for help. It’s very possible that their concern is one of the common reasons that college students seek help. Also explain to them that counseling services are free and confidential.
You can make a referral in any of the following ways:
- Give the student the phone number or email information http://www.wayne.uakron.edu/LearCen/, as well as our other contact information: Smucker Learning center 330-684-8960 email@example.com 330-684-8767 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Fink.
- Call us when you have the student in your office and put the student on the phone to schedule an appointment.
- If it’s a more pressing Level 1 or Level 2 problem, you can walk the student to the Smucker Learning Center or call and ask me to come to you if I am available.
Psychotherapy, consultations and referrals are the primary services provided by our office.
Individual psychotherapy generally is short-term. Students typically discuss concerns about relationships, decision-making and goal-setting, as well as feelings of depression, anxiety, stress and/or grief.
If more intensive therapy is warranted due to specific disorders or when a mental illness is diagnosed, we will help students find off-campus resources. Students can meet with us in Counseling and our discussion might determine that an off-campus referral is appropriate. Or, the student – or you – can email or call Counseling to ask for off-campus referrals.
Consultations can be useful for guidance in handling a situation yourself or for determining whether you should try to get a student into counseling. In the past, faculty members have called to ask what to do about specific students or to discuss difficult classroom situations. Please consider me a resource for you as well, if you need a confidential ear to discuss student behavior.
Ohio law and professional ethics require that counselors not discuss who seeks counseling or what the content of counseling discussions might be. This is sometimes frustrating for faculty. If you are concerned about a student you have referred, you can ask the student whether s/he followed up on your suggestion. A student can tell you anything they wish to share.