Students in Distress: A Guide for Faculty & Staff

The college years can be a time of discovery and excitement. At the same time, the personal and intellectual development which students experience in their college years can be taxing and difficult. Students leave the security of home, may experience loves and losses, or suffer from depression, alcohol abuse, sexual assault, or family problems. While most students cope successfully with the demands of college life, for some the pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable. Students may feel alone, isolated, helpless, and even hopeless. These feelings can easily disrupt academic performance and may result in harmful behaviors such as substance abuse or suicide attempts.

Faculty and staff members are in a unique position to identify and help students who are in crisis. This may be particularly true for students who cannot or will not turn to family or friends. Anyone who is seen as caring and trustworthy may be a potential resource in times of trouble. Your expression of interest and concern may be a critical factor in saving students' academic careers or even their lives.

The purpose of this document is to help you recognize some of the symptoms of student distress and to provide some specific options for intervention and for referral to campus resources. If you are concerned about a student, but are not sure how to proceed, the Post University Counseling Center is available to assist you with problem situations and to consult with you on how to intervene with a particular student.


Recognizing Distressed Students


Academic indicators
  • Deterioration in quality of work
  • A drop in grades
  • A negative change in classroom performance
  • Missed assignments
  • Repeated absences from class
  • Disorganized or erratic performance
  • Continual seeking of special accommodations (late papers, extensions, postponed examinations, and the like)
  • Essays or creative work which indicate extremes of hopelessness, social isolation, rage, or despair
Faculty-Student Relationship Indicators
  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or other difficulties
  • Unprovoked anger or hostility
  • Exaggerated personality traits: more withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Excessive dependency
  • Tearfulness
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Expressions of concern about a student in the class by his/her peers
  • A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong
Physical Indicators
  • Deterioration in physical appearance
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Visible changes in weight
  • Coming to class bleary-eyed, hung over, or smelling of alcohol or marijuana
Safety Risk Indicators
  • Any written note or verbal statement which has a sense of finality or a suicidal flavor to it
  • ssays or papers which focus on despair, suicide, or death
  • Severe depression
  • Statements to the effect that the student is "going away for a long time"
  • Giving away of prized possessions
  • Self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors
  • Any other behavior which seems out of control

What You can Do

If you choose to approach a student you are concerned about or if a student reaches out to you for help with personal problems, here are some suggestions which might make the situation more comfortable for you and more helpful for the student.

Talk to the student in private when both of you have the time and are not 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 cared about as an individual and more confident about decision-making.

If you have 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."

Give Hope. Assure the student that things can get better. It is important to help the student realize there are options, and that things will not always seem hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy, or professionals on campus. Recognize that your purpose is to enable the student to consult appropriate resources, not to solve the student's problem.

Avoid judging, evaluating, and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. Such behavior is apt to push the student away from you and from the help he or she needs. It is important to respect the student's value system, even if you disagree.

Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations.It is important to maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student or staff/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations, exam schedules, etc. Course withdrawal can be arranged through the Academic Affairs Office; other forms of personal assistance can be arranged through the University Counseling Center.

Refer. In making a referral, it is important to point out that: 1) help is available, and 2) seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure.

It may be helpful to point out that seeking professional help for other problems (medical, legal, car problems, etc.) is considered good judgment and an appropriate use of resources. For example, "If you had pneumonia, you would go to a doctor rather than trying to tough it out." If you can, prepare the student for what he or she might expect if your advice is taken. Tell the student what you know about the University Counseling Center.

Follow-Up. Arrange a follow-up meeting with the student to solidify his or her resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist in the process. Later check with the student to see if the referral appointment was kept and to hear about the experience. Continue to provide support while the student takes the appropriate actions.

Due to confidentiality laws, the Counseling Center cannot confirm or deny that the referred student has met with us unless the student has given us a release of information. Therefore, it is best for the faculty or staff member to follow-up with the student.

Consult. You may call the Counseling Center at 203.596.4585 for a consultation about the student. We will be glad to talk with you about your hunches, worries, and concerns. The Counseling Center, of course, accepts referrals of distressed students, but the student needs to be willing to attend counseling.

You may call the Erica Peryga, the Dean of Students at 203.596.8527 or the Crisis Cell at 203.228.8706 (in a crisis situation) to let her know of your concern. This office is often in the best position to gather information from a number of different sources and alert appropriate University personnel. The Dean of Students can also initiate a psychological evaluation, if there is sufficient concern.

If you have immediate concerns about a student's safety, stay with the student and notify the Dean of Students Office (203.596.8527 or 203.228.8706), the Counseling Center (203.596.4585), and/or Campus Safety (203.596.4501) immediately. These offices will then implement the College's suicide prevention policy. An immediate evaluation by mental health professionals will be arranged.

A student whose behavior has become threatening, violent, or significantly disruptive may need a different kind of approach. When in doubt regarding the appropriateness of action, contact the Dean of Students (203.596.8527 or 203.228.8706), Campus Safety (203.596.4501) or the Counseling Center (203.596.4585).


Other Issues to Consider

Avoid making sweeping promises of confidentiality, particularly if a student represents a safety risk to him or her-self. Students who are suicidal need swift professional intervention, and assurances of absolute confidentiality may get in the way.

It is acceptable to stay "in role" as a faculty member. You do not have to take on the role of counselor. You need only to listen, evaluate, and refer. If you do have counseling background and feel comfortable discussing a problem with a student, you may still want to consult with one of the offices listed above.

Students are encouraged to make their own appointments. You can assist this process by offering the student immediate use of your phone. Students can also visit the Counseling Center in Leever Center to schedule an appointment. Counseling Services are free to Post students and services are confidential.