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Helping Distressed Students

A Teaching Table on Mental Health Trends

MENTAL HEALTH TRENDSA Teaching Table on Mental Health Trends for Colgate and today's college student: Implications for faculty and the classroom settings will be held from noon-1:00 p.m., January 29, 2016 at the Coop Conference Room.

Role of Faculty and Staff

Faculty and staff can play an important role in assisting with student problems. Students frequently experience a great deal of stress (i.e., academic, social, financial) during their university careers. Many students successfully cope with these pressures, but some find themselves overwhelmed. Because emotional distress typically interferes with a student’s academic performance and/or social interactions, faculty and staff are often in good positions to recognize students who are in trouble. You will not be able to spot every such student, nor will every student you approach be willing to accept your assistance. Nevertheless, by communicating interest and concern to a distressed student, you may play a key role in helping that student regain the emotional balance needed to cope with stress.

Much of the stress that students experience is related to the developmental tasks of this life phase. Please remember, however, that major mental illnesses often manifest initially when people are in their 20’s. Some of the observable signs may indicate the beginning of serious psychological problems.

Recognizing Students in Distress

People dealing with personal concerns or problems may show signs of distress if the issues are difficult to resolve. The following indicators may be useful in assessing whether or not a referral should be made:
  1. Changes in mood, appearance or behavior. Some students do not directly tell you that there is a problem, but their appearance and behavior can be telling indicators. Deterioration of hygiene or appearance and dress may be visible cues of a problem. A distinct decline in academic performance, poor attendance, an uncharacteristic need for additional attention or repeated requests for extensions are examples of behavioral changes you might observe. Outbursts of anger, crying, extreme levels of activity or conversations that do not make sense could indicate psychological difficulties. Threats to classmates and angry, harassing behaviors may require intervention on several levels. These behaviors should not be tolerated and action needs to be taken to stop them. In addition, underlying psychological problems may need to be addressed as well.

  2. Traumatic changes in personal relationships. Students are often stressed when they experience a traumatic change in their personal lives. The death of a family member or close friend, difficulties in important relationships, a divorce or break-up or changes in family responsibilities might increase stress and overwhelm the individual’s usual capacity to cope. If you are aware of such a problem, you might wish to initiate a conversation.

  3. Drug and alcohol abuse. Coming to class or a meeting while intoxicated or high is a sign of serious abuse of drugs or alcohol. Individuals often use drugs and alcohol to cope with life stressos and psychological difficulties. Unfortunately, the substance abuse itself frequently causes a further decline in social, academic, and work functioning. If you see signs of intoxication, do not underestimate their significance. Be aware that abuse of and addiction to alcohol, marijuana, opiates (such as heroin), crack cocaine, and hallucinogenics are problems in this student population.

  4. Academic difficulties. Students whose academic performance declines to a noticeable degree may be feeling overwhelmed in other areas of their lives. Some students might exhibit difficulties with concentration in class or performance on exams.

  5. Learning problems. Some students find the demands of college-level academic work to be greater than they anticipated. While it is expected that students will go through an adjustment period, those who demonstrate a consistent discrepancy between their ability and performance may need further assistance. Poor study habits, test anxiety, or an undiagnosed learning disability may be affecting performance. Colgate’s Academic Support and Disabilities Services is equipped to help students with these issues.
  6. References to suicide. If a student talks or writes about suicide, this should be taken seriously. Thoughts of suicide are not necessarily dangerous, but they may indicate that the student is feeling overwhelmed or depressed. To assume that talk of suicide is intended solely to get attention is risky and can be a regrettable mistake. All talk about harm to self or others should be taken seriously. If you become aware of a student who is thinking about suicide, contact Counseling & Psychological Services (C&PS) immediately. Do not hesitate to refer the student to C&PS. You can call us for a consultation if you are unsure of how to intervene or if the student is reluctant to take your referral.

  7. Leaving school. When a student indicates that he or she is considering leaving school or transferring, a referral to C&PS (and the student’s administrative dean) would be appropriate. Often a complex number of issues are at play when a student decides to leave an institution.

Guidelines for Dealing with Distressed Students

There is no absolutely correct single procedure for dealing with distressed students. Each person has his or her own style of approaching and responding to others. Furthermore people have differing capacities to deal with others’ problems. It is important to know your personal limits as a helper.

If you choose to try to help a distressed student, or if a student approaches you to talk about personal problems:
  • Request to see the student in private.
  • Speak directly and honestly to a student when you sense that he/she is in academic and/or personal distress.
  • Ask if the student is talking to anyone, such as family or friends, about the problem. People tend to isolate themselves when in distress but this is rarely a useful stance.
  • If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class lately and I’m concerned,” rather than “Where have you been lately? You should be more concerned about your grades.”
  • Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you. Try to include both content and feeling (“it sounds like you’re not accustomed to this much work in so short a period of time and you’re worried about failing.”)
  • Avoid judging, evaluating and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. It is important to respect the student’s value system, even if you don’t agree with it.
  • Behavior that is strange or inappropriate should not be ignored. Comment directly on what you have observed.
  • Do not discuss your concerns with other students.
If you are concerned about a student’s suicide potential, keep in mind that mental health professionals assess suicide potential, in part, by asking if the student has a plan for exactly how he/she would act on these thoughts, when and where the student intends to carry out the plan, and if he/she has ever attempted suicide before. The more specific and lethal the plan, the fact of having made a previous attempt and the greater the ability to carry out the plan, the higher the risk that a suicide will occur. You need not be afraid to ask these questions. For people who are considering suicide, these questions will not furnish them with new ideas. Most people who are actively suicidal are willing to answer these questions. Conversely, many people consider suicide from time to time in passing. The less specific and lethal the plan (e.g., “I guess I’d take a couple sleeping pills sometime”), the less likely a suicide attempt, although one should not dismiss references to seemingly non-lethal means of attempting suicide.

Making a Referral for Counseling

Even though you may be genuinely concerned about students, and interested in helping them, you may find yourself in situations where it would be better to refer students to other resources. Circumstances that might necessitate a referral include:
  • The problem is more serious than you feel comfortable handling.
  • You are either extremely busy, or are experiencing stress in your own life, and are unable or unwilling to handle other requests for help.
  • You have talked to the student and helped as much as you can, but further assistance is needed.
  • You think your personal feelings about the student will interfere with your objectivity.
  • The student admits that there is a problem, but doesn’t want to talk to you about it.
  • The student asks for information or assistance that you are unable to provide.
Let the student know your reasons for making a referral (e.g., lack of time, conflict of interest, limited training) and emphasize your concern that they do get help from an appropriate source. It may help the student to know that you support his/her desire to seek help.

If a Student is Reluctant to Seek Professional Help

Many people believe that only very disturbed people seek therapy, so your referral might be interpreted as a comment on the severity of the problem. Reassure the student that therapists at C&PS work with people with a wide range of concerns. Problems need not reach crisis proportions for students to benefit from professional help. In fact, it is much easier to work on problems if they are addressed before reaching a crisis level. Normalizing the process of seeking help may be especially beneficial for international students whose countries may not have similar views of psychological counseling. Reluctant students might also be relieved to know that they can speak with a therapist on a one-time basis without making a commitment to ongoing therapy. Furthermore, any contact and information shared by the student is kept strictly confidential within C&PS and will not be disclosed to parents, faculty, other University departments, or even you, except with the student’s written permission. Finally, it is important to acknowledge, validate and discuss the student’s real fears and concerns about seeking help. It takes considerable courage to face oneself and acknowledge one’s limitations.

In some cases, you may find that the student has already sought counseling services at C&PS, or elsewhere, and was unsatisfied with the experience. There are many reasons why counseling may not be successful in a given situation. Please encourage the student to consider giving counseling another try, perhaps with a different counselor.

While it is important to care about the emotional well-being of students, we cannot make decisions for them, and counseling is always a personal choice. Occasionally, even your best efforts to encourage a student to seek counseling will be unsuccessful. If the student resists the referral and you remain uncomfortable with the situation, contact C&PS at 228-7385 to discuss your concern.

Scheduling an Appointment

Students should make their own appointments if possible. You can assist this process by offering the student immediate use of your phone. To schedule an appointment, call 228-7385 between 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30–5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. The student will be given the first initial consultation opening that matches his/her schedule. If you or the student thinks the matter is urgent and needs immediate attention, the student can be seen during our walk-in hour, 3:30–4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Whenever possible, please contact C&PS to let us know you are referring the student to us. This will help us prepare for the student when he/she arrives.


We treat all of our contacts with students confidentially and in accord with the state of New York mental health code. We cannot tell anyone, inside or outside of the University, that the student is receiving services with us unless the student signs a specific release of information authorizing us to do so. Sometimes the faculty or staff member who made the referral will call to follow up. Please understand that we cannot tell you that the student has made an appointment without his/her written consent. If you are concerned about the student, contact him/her directly to ask if s/he has followed through with the referral. We could only release information without a student’s written consent in those circumstances when there is imminent danger to the student or to others, child or elder abuse, or a duly issued subpoena. Such occasions are rare.

--Special thanks to the University of Chicago’s Student Counseling & Resource Service for the use of its materials in developing this guide.