Guide to Distressed Students
Faculty and staff are often the first to notice students who may be struggling. You see these students regularly and are in a direct position to observe behaviors. You may be the first person in whom the student confides. Consequently, you are in an excellent position to identify distressed students, provide assistance, and refer them to Counseling Services. Faculty and staff are not expected to provide personal counseling, but your expression of interest and concern can be critical in helping a student get back on track academically and emotionally.
The goal of this guide is to assist faculty and staff in early identification of distressed students, brief facilitation, and the referral procedure. It addresses services offered by Counseling Services and offers an overview of specific student concerns. While general guidelines are offered, personal style, philosophy of the role of faculty, class size, length of relationship, and the student’s openness to help certainly impact the process. Please do not hesitate to call if we can be of assistance in meeting the needs of your students.
Tips for Recognizing Students in Distress
Students often feel depressed or anxious for short periods of time during their college years. This is a perfectly normal part of being a human being and is to be expected. Most students handle these times well and without notice. However, sometimes these periods intensify and interfere with daily functioning and academic success, making intervention helpful.
Some obvious and not-so-obvious signs of distress include:
- Significant change in academic performance, preparation, and behavior in class
- Excessive absences and tardiness
- Repeated requests for special consideration
- Unusual change in mood, demeanor or hygiene
- Listlessness or falling asleep in class
- Inappropriate remarks or outbursts
- Aggressive behaviors
- Signs of drugs or alcohol in class
- Disorganized thoughts or speech
- Inability to concentrate on conversation or activity
- Increasing dependence upon you
- Reports of death or difficult relationship
- References to suicide
- Social isolation
- Statements or hopelessness or prolonged observable unhappiness
Guidelines for Responding
While we cannot make another person go to counseling or be ready for change, it is certainly appropriate to encourage a student to talk to a professional about their concerns. Acknowledging your awareness of a student’s distress can open up dialogue and reveal your concern. In fact, your response can be pivotal in a student’s willingness to seek help. Please consider the following general guidelines for response:
- Request to speak to the student privately.
- Share your observations and concerns. (“I’ve noticed….I’ve seen….and I’m concerned about you.”)
- Listen to the student’s story.
- Ask what the student is doing to address the problem.
- Help the student explore the academic consequences of no action or change.
- Do not promise confidentiality.
- Contact security if the student’s behavior is threatening.
- Report unusual or troublesome behavior to the Dean of Students or a member of the BAIT team.
- Know your limits and involve yourself only as far as you are comfortable.
- Refer students to appropriate resources on campus.
Given the nature of college life and simply the human condition, it is natural most students experience some situational depression during their years here. Problems arise when “the blues” turns into a clinical depression which significantly affects life functioning. Because of the prevalence of depression on college campuses, it is important to know the symptoms of this illness.
- Profound sadness or irritable mood
- Pronounced changes in sleep, appetite, and energy
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, and remembering
- Physical slowing or agitation
- Lack of interest in or pleasure from activities previously enjoyed
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and emptiness
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
- Persistent physical symptoms
- Lack of motivation
Suicide Risk Checklist
The information below is intended to help you identify students at high risk for suicide and obtain appropriate assistance for these students. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students. As a faculty, staff, or administrative member of the WSU community, you may come into contact with a suicidal student at any time. While it is not expected that you provide a thorough assessment of the student’s concerns, you may be the first contact for a student in distress. A willingness to listen and ask questions can save the life of a student!
Ask: (1) Are you thinking of hurting or killing yourself?
If yes, ask: (2) Do you have a plan?
|1. Suicide Plan||No plan||Well thought-out|
where, and how
|b. Availability of Means||Not available, will have to get||Has in hand|
|c. Lethality of Method||Pills, cutting yourself||
Gun, hanging, jumping,
sitting on train tracks
most of the time;
lives on campus (with roommate)
No one nearby; isolated;
lives off campus or in single
|2. Previous Attempts||None||One or more|
|3. Stress||No significant stress||High stress or recent loss|
|4. Depression||Mild, feel slightly down||
Overwhelmed with sadness,
hopelessness, and feelings of
Low Risk (Non-life-threatening)
Students who are distressed, but in a non-life threatening situation (i.e., not suicidal OR only having general thoughts of suicide without a plan, intent, or means) can be referred to Counseling Services (Integrated Wellness Complex 222, 507.457.5330) for emotional and psychological assistance. Counselors will help students clarify their issues, assess their resources, and assist them with getting back on track with their goals. Services are free and confidential for students. Counseling Services is open Monday through Friday, 8am – 4:30pm
High Risk (Life-threatening)
Note: Students who are at high risk for suicide should not be left alone. Stay with the student until the appropriate assistance/intervention has been obtained.
Students who are distressed and in a life-threatening situation (i.e., intent and plan for suicide) should be assisted using the following resources:
Evening (after 4:30), and Weekends
For our ancestors heightened anxiety often proved to be a life-saving response to a dangerous situation. Less often does this happen to us now. Truthfully a little bit of experienced stress can motivate us to necessary action. However, when those intense “fight vs. flight” reactions happen repeatedly as a response to the stress of college life, it can lead to many problems for students. Health, mood, concentration, motivation, relationships and more can be affected. For some, chronic stress can turn into acute panic attacks. Someone experiencing a panic attack feels an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. Often they experience physical sensations such as racing heart, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, increased sweating, and light-headedness or dizziness. The following guidelines are appropriate in most cases.
Consider these helpful actions:
- Speak slowly and stay calm
- Provide a quiet and safe environment until symptoms subside
- Remind the student to slow down breathing and focus on an object in the room
- Ask them to describe the physical objects in the room
Students With Eating Concerns
Unless a student is significantly restricting his or her food intake, spotting someone with disordered eating is not always possible. There may be times when you notice someone with excessive weight loss in a short amount of time or a significantly underweight student. It is more uncommon, though not impossible, for a faculty or staff member to see signs of binging and purging. Given the long-term nature of treatment for disordered eating, when students come to Counseling Services with an active eating disorder, we facilitate a referral to a community therapist. We do counsel students who have successfully sought treatment for their eating disorder, who have struggles with body image, and who have more general eating concerns.
Since September 11, 2001, thousands of members of the Minnesota National Guard have been called to active duty in other countries. WSU has many students who were active duty and have returned and others who are currently deployed.
Approximately 25-30% of soldiers statewide were college students at the time of deployment. Upon return, this number increases. Yet the drop out rate for veteran students is alarmingly high. Some of the reasons for this include: frustrations or delays with benefits, frustrations with learning the college system, psychological issues from combat stress, campus political climate, feelings that college concerns are unimportant compared to the life and death issues of combat, age and maturity gap with other students, and lack of support.
The transition from soldier to student is huge. Some make this transition quite smoothly and others struggle a great deal. Veteran students have learned battlefield skills that were essential to life in combat, but can cause misunderstanding and frustration here. Many must relearn who and how to trust, how to feel safe, how to relax, how to express emotions, and how to focus on and find meaning in things that are not life and death decisions.
These students face critical challenges during the transition. They are striving to overcome the alienation experienced from having life experiences to which most cannot relate. They are attempting to live without the “high” of war. The day-to-day life at college does not match the high levels of adrenaline of war. They are moving back into a very complex world. While the consequences of decisions made while a soldier are vast, the total number of daily decisions is quite small compared to civilian life. This can feel overwhelming. And they are attempting to develop an identity beyond “soldier” and a meaning beyond “war.”
A high number of returning veterans experience combat stress in some form. All face a challenging transition. Studies by the US Army Mental Health Advisory Team suggest that somewhere between 11 and 17% of returning soldiers will experience acute stress in the form of depression, anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These emotional and cognitive difficulties can interfere with one’s ability to concentrate and perform academically. Often these students feel alienated from their community and question the value of school.
If you become aware of a student who is having difficulty adjusting to college, feel free to refer them to Counseling Services. Our role will be to provide resources, offer support, and attempt to help in easing this transition for them. If more acute stress is experienced, we will help them locate medical and psychological services available to them free of charge within the community or state. Often times veterans prefer to speak with a counselor with military experience or a counselor outside of their immediate community. There is a van provided by Winona County Veteran Services which brings veterans to the Twin Cities for such services each week. All veterans, like all students, are highly individual. However, the following list of general guidelines is offered.
Consider these helpful actions:
- Thank veteran students for their service to country and welcome them to your class
- Ask how you can help ease this transition
- Let them know there is a Veteran’s Drop-in Center in the Admissions Office
- Be willing to hear a soldier’s story without judgment
- Encourage them to contact Counseling Services for added support
It is our goal at WSU to ease this transition by providing support, available resources, and a safe and welcoming environment. It is in recognition of the multiple challenges and stressors facing veterans that the following list of resources is offered.