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Helping a Distressed Student

Introduction

Both empirical research and practical experience indicate that, across our nation, increasing numbers of students with more severe problems requiring additional time and resources are coming into counseling centers for help. However, counselors are not normally the first people students turn to when they have problems. Students most often initially reach out to friends, resident assistants, advisors, faculty, and family members, confiding in those closest to them when they are having difficulties.  At other times, students attempt to hide their problems and struggles from those who care about them and, if approached, may deny that anything is wrong. In either case, here are some signs to look for and suggestions for helping a student who is in distress.

Common Causes & Signs of Student Distress

  • Changes in personality (e.g., more noticeably sad, irritable, anxious, indecisive, apathetic, etc.), especially when these changes persist for more than just a few days.
  • Changes in academic performance (e.g., skipping classes, failing grades, falling behind, etc.). Academic problems are often indicative of a deeper personal problem that is making it difficult for the student to concentrate or be motivated to do the things necessary to be a successful student.
  • Recent significant losses (e.g., ending of a relationship, death of an important person, experiencing a traumatic event, etc.). While students have probably dated in high school, college is often the first time that students involve themselves in long-term, serious, intimate relationships and commitments. When these relationships are threatened or break up, it often takes a heavy toll on students.
  • Withdrawal from others (including friends and family) and previously enjoyed activities.
  • Helplessness/hopelessness (e.g., person may be unable to see a better future; feels nothing will ever change) is a particularly ominous sign. Most of us are willing to press on in life and work on our problems if we can see a light at the end of the tunnel, a day when things will be better. When students don't have that hope, they are much less motivated to put forth an effort to change their lives, and they may even have thoughts about taking their lives through suicide.
  • Changes in eating patterns (e.g., loss of or increased appetite) and/or sleeping habits (e.g., insomnia or oversleeping). Sustained periods of significant changes in eating habits or insomnia can have serious consequences on both a student's academic and psychological functioning. On the other end of the spectrum, sleeping all the time may indicate that a student is trying to escape from problems by retreating to dreamland.
  • Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs, especially when substance use leads to antagonistic, impulsive, reckless and/or violent behavior.
  • Financial difficulties.
  • Appearing disoriented or "out of it" (e.g., less aware of what is going on around them, more forgetful, rambling or disconnected speech, and/or behavior that seems out of context or bizarre). These may indicate either a drug-induced altered state or a serious mental health issue such as psychosis.
  • Talking about committing suicide (ranging from vague statements like "Everyone would be better off without me" and "It won't matter soon" to direct and clear statements like "I'm going to kill myself"). Most people who contemplate suicide give some warning of their intentions to someone close to them.
  • Talking about harming others (e.g., verbal threats, threatening emails, harassing or stalking behaviors, papers/exams that contain violent material). All such statements and actions must be taken seriously.

Assisting a Student in Distress

While it is not expected that you provide a thorough assessment, you may be the first contact for a student in distress and in a position to ask a few questions and make a few suggestions.  Here are some practical tips to help a student in distress:

Speak directly to the student about your concerns, preferably in a private place.
People in distress are almost always receptive to an expression of genuine interest, caring, and concern. It is important to realize that confronting someone does not mean judging, attacking, or blaming the person; it means finding the courage to talk with the person about what you've noticed, your concerns, and your willingness to help.

Talk about why you are approaching the student and what you hope will and won't happen as a result.
Example: "I'm really worried about how sad and depressed you've been. I'm hoping that you'll listen to what I have to say and not just blow me off, because I really want to find a way to help you start to feel better."

Be specific about the behaviors you've observed that have caused your concern. Clearly stating your observations in a nonjudgmental way makes it more difficult for the person to deny that a problem exists and also lets the person know that you care enough to notice. Example: "Your attendance at class has been very sporadic, and your grades have fallen off. When you have been in class, you haven't been actively participating, and you've looked very down and withdrawn. I also thought I smelled alcohol on you a couple of times."

Express your feelings about the student's situation.
Example: "I'm really worried about you. I've been a bit nervous to approach you, because it seems like you don't believe you have a problem. At the same time, I feel that, as your professor, I need to share my concerns with you and encourage you to take advantage of resources here at JMU that could help you."

Recognize the value of emotional release and encourage the student to "talk it out."
Simply talking about the situation and knowing that someone cares can be tremendously healing.

Ask direct questions.
Don't be afraid to ask the student directly if they are drunk, confused, or have thoughts of harming themselves or someone else. You will not be "putting ideas into their heads" by doing so. Most distressed students will be relieved and comforted by such an up-front, direct approach.

Be a good listener.
Listening to the student is more important than coming up with the "right thing" to say. Even if you don't agree with his or her view of things, the important part is that the student feels heard and understood. A few helpful tips include:

  • Stop talking. Your objective is to listen, not solve the student's problems.
  • Ask open-ended questions that encourage the student to go further into the subject, rather than simply give a yes/no answer (e.g., "Tell me more about . . .," "How have you been feeling since that happened to you?").
  • Check out your understanding of what the student is saying. In your own words, reflect back what they said.

Don't dismiss the student's perspective.  What may seem like a temporary or insignificant issue to you may feel momentous and overwhelming to a student in distress. It may be helpful for you to reflect upon a time in your own life when you experienced something similar (remember when your heart was broken for the first time?).

Avoid labeling the student or his/her behavior.
For example, don't say "You're an alcoholic" or "You're bulimic." Such labels, even if they are true, can frighten or anger the student and reduce the chances that they'll acknowledge and address the problem.

Frame the decision to seek and accept help as a courageous, mature choice.
Suggest that a willingness to seek and accept assistance from others, including a counselor, indicates that the student is not running away from problems. This is especially important for guys, as men in our society are encouraged to be independent, keep feelings to themselves, and solve problems on their own.

Don't dispense glib advice.
While offered with the best of intentions, phrases like "time heals all wounds", "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade", and "this too shall pass" normally cause people in distress to feel misunderstood and as though their problems are being minimized.

Offer alternatives and establish hope.
Intense emotional pain frequently blinds distressed people to alternative solutions to their problems.  Help the student develop a plan and locate needed resources so that he or she can start to feel more hopeful and begin to act to improve the situation.

Know your own limits.
While you may be able to help most people by simply listening to them and providing a little support and guidance, others may require much more than you may want or be able to provide.  Signs that you may be over-extending yourself include feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation, feeling angry at or afraid of the student, and having thoughts of "adopting" or otherwise rescuing the student.

Respect the student's privacy, but only up to a point.
Confidentiality is vital for trust, so you typically should not share with others what the student has shared with you. However, you must never fall into the "confidentiality trap". In situations involving a serious risk of harm to the person or someone else, don't promise to keep secrets.  Despite any protest ("You're making this worse!"), the potential risks must be your first concern.  Point out the bind in which the student is placing you (e.g., "If someone came to you with a situation like this, what would you do?  Keep it a secret or get them help?").

Recommend that the student meet with a counselor at the Counseling Center.

  • Describe the benefits of counseling. Let the student know that counselors work hard to understand students, to see things from their point of view, and to then collaboratively help them to figure out solutions.
  • Let the student know that counseling services are free, voluntary, and confidential. 
  • Help the student make an appointment with the Counseling Center (540-568-6552). If the student is really upset, or if you're worried that he or she might not follow through, suggest making an appointment right then and there. Some faculty, staff, and friends even escort students directly to the Counseling Center when that level of support is necessary.
  • Follow up with the student. The counseling process is often most difficult at the very beginning, and your encouragement may help to get the student over this initial hurdle.  Ask how the first appointment went (you don't need the details, just that they connected with someone). Please remember that, because of confidentiality constraints, counselors cannot talk with you about a person you have referred without an authorization to exchange information signed by the student.

Call the Counseling Center (540-568-6552) if, at any point, you aren't sure what to do.
The mental health professionals at the Counseling Center are available to support and guide you in your efforts to help a distressed student. We will consult with you about the situation and help you to develop a plan to appropriately address it.