Students in distress

The faculty role: a guide for University Counseling Center services

Recognizing students in distress

At one time or another, everyone experiences unhappiness or depression. The “blues” are common and usually don’t last long, but certain patterns of behavior over a period of time can indicate something is wrong and professional help may be needed.

Behaviors that indicate emotional distress aren’t always disruptive to the classroom. However, faculty members are in a unique position to observe the patterns a student’s actions suggest. Some behaviors that may not be disruptive, but may indicate a need for help, are:

  • A change from consistently good grades to unaccountably poor performance, or serious problems with grades.
  • Excessive absences; this is especially true if the student has previously demonstrated good attendance.
  • Markedly changed or unusual patterns of interaction with classmates or instructor, such as completely dominating a discussion, or avoiding any discussion whatsoever.
  • Other signs of emotional distress may include depressed or lethargic behavior patterns, excessive activity or talking (rapid, pressured speech), red or swollen eyes, marked change in dress or personal hygiene, sweating when the room isn’t hot, or falling asleep in class.

Sometimes students, even those in significant distress, are reluctant or unable to acknowledge a need for help. Behaviors that may indicate severe distress include:

  • Repeated requests for special consideration such as deadline extensions, especially if the student seems uncomfortable or highly emotional disclosing the reasons for the request.
  • Behavior, new or regularly occurring, that is vastly out of place and interferes with the effective management of the classroom.
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response that is inappropriate to the situation, such as needing to leave the room upon presentation of certain material.

The disruptive student

Although it’s fairly rare, some students are so disturbed they become disruptive in class. Many faculty members make efforts to contain the situation and deal with it directly by speaking with the student after class about the behavior. If this happens, the student may reveal personal problems and a referral to the University Counseling Center can be made. Often, however, the first effort may not get results. Calling the Counseling Center for a consultation might prove to be helpful. Together, we can develop a strategy to deal with the disruptive behavior and get the student some help if possible. Discussing the disruptive student with your department chair or dean could also prove helpful. In the case of a dangerous or threatening student, call the University Police at 607-777-2393 or 911 (on-campus phones only), as well as the University Counseling Center at 607-777-2772.

Some behaviors students will exhibit that indicate they’re in crisis and need emergency attention include:

  • Highly disruptive behaviors, hostility, aggressiveness, violence, etc.
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech; unconnected or disjointed thoughts)
  • Loss of contact with reality, such as seeing or hearing things that aren’t there, beliefs or actions that are greatly at odds with reality or probability
  • Suicidal thoughts that are immediate, including plans and/or methods
  • Homicidal thoughts

Helping the distressed student not needing emergency assistance

Some crises or overwhelming situations aren’t as obvious; yet, you may know something needs to be done. We hope the information in this section will help you deal with those less clear-cut situations.

You have a variety of choices for dealing with behavior that indicates to you that a student may be troubled, but isn’t in crisis. You may choose to ignore it; handle it in a “strictly business” way — that is, only with respect to the classroom; or you may handle it more personally. Calling the University Counseling Center may be helpful in deciding which course of action you would like to take.

If you decide to approach the student or the student approaches you directly and you decide to handle the problem personally:

  • Give the student your undivided attention by discussing the matter privately. Just a few minutes of effective listening by faculty can make a big difference in a student's perception of a problem, and often of college.
  • Express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental terms. For example, "I’ve noticed you’ve had some absences lately, and I’m concerned."
  • Let the student talk. Try to communicate to the student that you’ve listened to what was said. Try to repeat back or paraphrase the gist of the conversation.
  • Help the student clarify advantages and disadvantages of various courses of action for handling what the student perceives the problem to be.
  • Avoid judgments, evaluations and criticisms, as these may make the student less inclined to talk with you. Even if you don’t agree with the student’s value system, try to respect it. It’s important to identify your opinions clearly as yours, not what you think the student should think.

What you can do in an emergency

Crises are the easiest form of student distress to identify and, in some ways, the easiest to handle. Assistance and emergency referral procedures are outlined here for your convenience:

  • Stay calm. Try not to leave the student alone. Find someone to stay with the student while calls are made to helping resources.
  • If a student directly threatens himself, herself or someone else, or otherwise behaves bizarrely, attention is needed immediately. Call:
    • University Police at 607-777-2393 or 911 (from an on-campus phone)
    • University Counseling Center at 607-777-2772 (call the University Police to reach a counselor if it is after 5 p.m.)
    • Decker Student Health Services Center at 607-777-2221
  • Stay with the student, or have someone stay with the student until help arrives.

Making a referral to the Counseling Center

There are times when it’s clearly not in anyone’s best interest for you to try to handle a student’s distress personally. You may not be able to give enough time, you may know that your personality differences will get in the way or you may genuinely dislike the student. Whatever the reason or reasons, there are times it’s best to turn the problem over to someone else.

Some students will accept a referral for help more readily than others. How you make the referral can make all the difference in whether it’s accepted and how the student perceives your need to make it.

Be frank with the student about your limitations and ability to help. Most will understand that you don't have the time or training, or simply that this isn’t what your job is. It means a lot to them, though, that you care enough to try to help them. You can also be invaluable in dispelling some of the stereotypes that surround the idea of counseling.

Students may feel they have to be severely disturbed or, at the very least, know exactly what is wrong with them to seek counseling. It can be very comforting for them to know that many students seek counseling, and that often they do so because they’re confused about what they’re feeling or thinking.

There are three ways you can make a referral to the University Counseling Center:

  1. You can tell students about the Counseling Center. This tends to be least likely to succeed, as the student may procrastinate in following up on the information.
  2. You can call and make an appointment for the student. This is usually best done while they’re still with you and you can work out a mutually agreeable time for an appointment.
  3. You can come to the Counseling Center with the student, while he or she sets up the appointment. This tends to be the most successful type of referral, in which the student is most likely to follow up. You may even sit in on the first session if you like, with the student’s permission.

What happens when you refer a student to the Counseling Center

If you contact the Counseling Center in a crisis situation, someone will talk with you immediately. We may come to the scene or we may determine that the University Police should respond as soon as possible. From that point on, the situation is usually handled exclusively by counseling staff or the University Police. Once students have dealt with us, we consider them clients and we are bound by confidentiality regarding our conversations with them. With their written permission, we may fill you in on limited details.

What students can expect when they come to the Counseling Center

Some students are reluctant to go to the Counseling Center because they don’t know what to expect. Upon arrival, all students are asked to fill out an intake form, providing basic information. This is kept as part of the student’s confidential file. Many students wonder if counseling appointments or information will somehow end up on their “permanent record.” It won’t. All sessions are free, private and confidential. Only with the student's written permission or when the student is a danger to self or others is the Counseling Center free to share information with anyone.

Students will meet with a member of the counseling staff for about an hour, or perhaps less. Emergencies may require more time. Students will usually see whoever has the first available appointment when the call is made. However, students may request to speak with a specific member of the staff, if they prefer. During busy times, this may cause a delay in being seen.

During the first session, the counselor will usually try to determine what the problem or issue is and will try to see if counseling is the best approach. The counselor will give a brief explanation of the counseling process and will usually conclude by asking the student if he or she wishes to make another appointment, wait and call if he or she needs to talk more, or would like a referral to another person or agency.

Students often feel better when they find that counseling is voluntary. The Counseling Center doesn’t accept “mandated” referrals for counseling.

The student who asks for exceptions, incompletes, extensions, etc.

Often, students’ problems are disruptive of their academic work and they find it difficult to follow through on their academic responsibilities. They come to faculty with involved tales of interpersonal or family difficulties that they hope will elicit sympathy and an incomplete/extension from the faculty member.

To spare the faculty member the problems involved in separating a legitimate excuse (“beyond the student’s control”) from one that is more manipulative, the University Counseling Center will make a recommendation to you after meeting with the student. The student’s confidentiality will be maintained and we will simply indicate to you whether there is enough evidence to warrant a deviation from the rules. This serves two useful purposes: (1) It helps the faculty member who does not want to intrude or have to make an assessment about a student's personal life; and (2) it facilitates the student’s contact with a source of potential help.

When the client is a staff or faculty member

There are times when faculty or staff find themselves in need of counseling or psychotherapy, and are unaware of resources available to them. The University Counseling Center is available for an interview to help determine the need for treatment and to give community referrals to University faculty and staff. Our resources don’t allow us to go further and provide counseling for faculty/staff; however, the Employee Assistance Program is another resource.

Other types of consultation

Working in high-pressure situations such as today’s university setting can often generate stress and interpersonal problems. This can create an atmosphere that is difficult, at best. We have often been called to work with these situations, within a department or office, to ease tension or to resolve difficulties. We’re available for confidential consultation on these matters and offer our services to departments or offices that find themselves in this situation.

Types of student problems

Types of student problems University Counseling Center staff have worked with in the past include:

  1. Abusive behavior: physical, sexual, emotional
  2. Academic stress: lack of motivation, test anxiety, performance
  3. Adjustment: loneliness, shyness, homesickness
  4. Adult student issues: family conflict, single parent adjustment
  5. Aggressive/hostile behaviors and acting out
  6. Anxiety, inability to concentrate
  7. Change in goals, plans or programs
  8. Confusion or lack of direction
  9. Depression
  10. Disturbing content in students' work
  11. Eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia
  12. Grief reactions
  13. Personal loss
  14. Problem drinking or drug abuse
  15. Relationships: roommate, parental, spouse, dating, family
  16. Self-confidence issues
  17. Stress management: academic, emotional, physical
  18. Student-parent problems
  19. Suicidal thoughts and feelings