College students often encounter a great deal of stress, e.g. academic, social, family, work, and financial. While most students cope successfully with life's demands, sometimes these pressures become overwhelming and unmanageable. Students might feel alone, isolated, helpless, and even hopeless. These feelings can easily disrupt academic performance and can result in harmful behaviors, including substance abuse and suicide attempts.
Faculty and staff members are in a unique position to identify and help students who are, or appear to be, in distress. This can be particularly true for students who can't or won't turn to family or friends for help. Any faculty or staff member who is perceived by students as caring and trustworthy can be a potential resource in times of trouble. Your expression of interest and concern might be a critical factor in helping struggling students re-establish emotional equilibrium, thus saving their academic careers and, possibly, their lives.
This information is designed to help you recognize some of the symptoms of student distress and provide some specific options for intervention and referral to campus and/or community resources. The campus’ student personal counselor is available to assist you with problem situations and consult with you about any student(s) who warrants intervention.
Tips for Recognizing Students in Distress
At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. The following can help to identify some symptoms which, when present over a period of time, suggest that the problem(s) a student is dealing with might be more than usual.
Marked Change in Academic Performance or Behavior
- Poor performance and preparation
- Excessive absences or tardiness
- Repeated requests for special consideration, especially when this represents a change from past behavior
- Avoiding participation
- Dominating discussions
- Excessively anxious when called upon
- Disruptive behavior
- Exaggerated emotional response that is obviously inappropriate to the situation
Unusual Behavior or Appearance
- Depressed or lethargic mood
- Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
- Deterioration in personal hygiene or dress
- Dramatic weight loss or gain
- Strange or bizarre behavior indicating loss of contact with reality
References to Emotional or Life Stressors
- Problems with roommates, family, or romantic partners
- Experiencing a death of a significant other
- Experiencing a physical or sexual assault
- Experiencing discrimination based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disabilities
- Experiencing legal difficulties
- Any other problem or situation that is experienced as a loss or stress
References to Suicide, Homicide, or Death
- Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- Verbal or written references to suicide
- Verbal or written references to homicide or assault behavior
- Isolation from friends, family, and classmates
What Can You Do?
If you choose to approach a student who concerns you, or if a student reaches out to you for help with personal problems, here are some suggestions that might make the opportunity to communicate more comfortable for you and more helpful for the student.
Talk to the student in private when both of you have the time and aren't rushed or preoccupied. Give the student your undivided attention. It's possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part might be enough to help the student feel cared about as an individual and more confident about what to do. If you've initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental 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 your understanding by repeating back to the student what he/she has told you. Try to include both content and feelings, e.g. "It sounds like you're not used to such a big campus, and you're feeling left out of things." Let the student talk.
Give hope. Assure the student that things can get better. It's important to help students realize that options are available and that things won't always seem this hopeless. Suggest resources such as friends, family, clergy, coaches, or campus professionals. However, recognize that your purpose should be to provide enough hope to enable the student to consult a professional or other appropriate person, on or off campus. Your purpose is not to solve the student's problem(s).
Avoid judging, evaluating and/or criticizing a student, even if he/she asks for your opinion. Such behavior is apt to push the student away from you and the help the student needs. It's important to respect the student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.
Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations with the student. It's important to maintain a professional faculty or staff relationship with the student. You might be able to help a student understand options related to a deferred grade, late drop, or withdrawal from the semester. If a student seems to feel overly distressed about making a decision about options, personal assistance can be facilitated through the Office of Student Affairs.
Refer them. When making a referral, it's important to point out that help is available and seeking help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure. It might be helpful to point out that seeking professional help for other problems, e.g. medical, legal, car, or other issues, is considered to be good judgment and an appropriate use of resources. If you can, prepare the student for what to expect. Tell the student what you know about campus services and/or other community options.
Timing is critical to be aware that options for referral vary depending on the time of day.
Follow-up with them. Arrange a time to meet again to solidify the student's resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist in this process. Check later to see that the referral appointment was kept and learn how it went. Provide support while the student takes further appropriate action or, if necessary, pursues another referral.
Consult when in doubt about the advisability of an intervention, always call for counseling and consultation. Faculty who have questions about how to respond to a student of concern are encouraged to call the 24/7 Penn State Crisis Line at 1-877-229-6400.
What Can a Student Expect at the First Session?
A student's initial interview with a professional counselor is usually arranged by scheduling an appointment. You can help with this process by offering the student the immediate use of your phone. It's helpful for you to become familiar with the services available on campus.
In very urgent or crisis situations, an immediate or same-day intervention might be required. A crisis might include considering suicide, experiencing a sexual assault, and/or feeling overwhelmed and disoriented due to severe panic. In order to arrange for a crisis intervention session, the faculty or staff member helping a student must communicate clearly with the staff member(s) who can help the student, alertin him/her to the extreme nature of the situation. If you feel that a student might be reluctant to ask for a crisis appointment, facilitate the process by making this request for the student yourself.
Prior to the first visit with the counselor, the student completes a series of forms eliciting background information. During the initial interview, the counselor and student begin an assessment of the student's needs and the ways in which campus or other services might be able to help. Except in rare situations where disclosure is legally mandated, all counseling services are confidential.
What Happens After the First Session?
If the student and intake counselor agree that further counseling is appropriate, the student and counselor review the options available on campus and in the community in order to arrive at a tentative plan for additional services. Following the initial appointment and depending on the time of the semester, it's possible there might be a waiting period for the specific service(s) needed.
Counseling on campus is available to students to resolve many of their concerns. However, some students are referred to other campus offices or community resources for specialized or ongoing counseling.
Finally, some students might leave the initial interview feeling able to handle their problems on their own. Students can always return if they want to learn if additional services would be helpful.
Consultation is Available
If you've decided to help a student at risk, you might have questions about the best way to handle the situation. Staff members in the Office of Student Affairs are happy to help you.
- Assess the situation, its seriousness, and the potential for referral.
- Learn about on and off-campus resources so that you can suggest the most appropriate help available when talking with a student.
- Find the best way to make the referral.
- Clarify your own feelings about the student and consider ways you can be most effective.
- Discuss follow-up concerns after the initial action or referral. (Important: Due to confidentiality requirements, we can discuss a student's specific situation or our contact with them ONLY if the student has given us written permission to do so.)
- A student whose behavior has become threatening, violent, or significantly disruptive might need a different kind of approach compared to a student who is open and willing to seek help. Students who pose a serious danger to themselves or others can be evaluated by a county crisis worker to determine if involuntary hospitalization is indicated in order to protect the life and safety of the student or others.