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Faculty Guide: Assisting the Emotionally Distressed Student

J. D. Muth © 2009--Photo taken March 10, 2009 on Sulphur Mountain, in Upper Ojai.

Occasionally you will have contact with students whose problems or behaviors cause you concern or discomfort. This page provides succinct advice on how to cope with and assist troubled or difficult students. Counseling Services offers consultation to faculty and staff about students of concern, as well as an array of services available to students including crisis intervention, stress management and personal counseling.

Contact Phone             
Campus Police (805) 756-2281 or
911 on campus
Campus Police Non-Emergency (805) 756-2222
Sexual Assault Recovery (805) 545-8888
Dean of Students (805) 756-0327
SLO Hotline (800) 783-0607
SLO County Mental Health (805) 781-4700

General Intervention Guidelines

Openly acknowledging to students that you are aware of their distress, that you are sincerely concerned about their welfare, and that you are willing to help them explore their alternatives, can have a profound effect. We encourage you, whenever possible, to speak directly and honestly to a student when you sense that she/he is in academic and/or personal distress.

  1. Request to see the student in private. This may help minimize embarrassment and defensiveness.
  2. Briefly acknowledge your observations and perceptions of their situation and express your concerns directly and honestly.
  3. Listen carefully to what the student is troubled about and try to see the issues from her/his point of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.
  4. Attempt to identify the student's problem or concern as well as your own concerns or uneasiness. You can help by exploring alternatives to deal with the problem.
  5. Strange and inappropriate behavior should not be ignored. Comment directly on what you have observed.
  6. Your flexibility with strict procedures may allow an alienated student to respond more effectively to your concerns.
  7. Involve yourself only as far as you want to go. At times, in an attempt to reach or help a troubled student, you may become more involved than time or skill permits.

 

  The Depressed Student

Depression, and the variety of ways it manifests itself, is part of a natural emotional and physical response to life’s ups and downs. With the busy and demanding life of a college student, it is safe to assume that most students will experience periods of reactive depression in their college careers. It is when the depressive symptoms become so extreme or are so enduring that they begin to interfere with the student’s ability to function in school, work, or social environment, that the student will come to your attention and be in need of assistance.

Due to the opportunities which faculty and staff have to observe and interact with students, they are often the first to recognize that a student is in distress. Look for a pattern of these indicators:

  • Tearfulness/general emotionality
  • Markedly diminished performance
  • Dependency (a student who makes excessive requests for your time)
  • Infrequent class attendance
  • Lack of energy/motivation
  • Increased anxiety/test anxiety/performance anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Alcohol or drug use

Students experiencing depression often respond well to a small amount of attention for a short period of time. Early intervention increases the chances of the student’s rapid return to optimal performance.

Do:

  • Let the student know you’re aware she/he is feeling down and you would like to help
  • Reach out more than halfway and encourage the student to discuss how she/he is feeling.
  • Offer options to further investigate and manage the symptoms of the depression.

Don't:

  • Bombard the student with "fix it" solutions or advice.
  • Chastise the student for poor or incomplete work.
  • Be afraid to ask whether the student is suicidal if you think she/he may be.
  • Minimize the student’s feelings, e.g., "Don't worry." "Everything will be better tomorrow."
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  The Verbally Aggressive Student

Students usually become verbally abusive when in frustrating situations which they see as being beyond their control; anger and frustration become displaced from those situations onto the nearest target. Explosive outbursts or ongoing belligerent, hostile behavior become this student’s way of gaining power and control in an otherwise out-of-control experience. It is important to remember that the student is generally not angry at you personally, but is angry at her/his world and you are the object of pent-up frustrations. This behavior is often associated with the use of alcohol and other drugs.

Do:

  • Acknowledge their anger and frustration, e.g., "I hear how angry you are."
  • Rephrase what they are saying and identify their emotion, e.g., "I can see how upset you are because you feel your rights are being violated and nobody will listen."
  • Reduce stimulation; invite the person to a quiet place if this is comfortable.
  • Allow them to ventilate, get the feelings out, and tell you what is upsetting them.
  • Be directive and firm about the behaviors you will accept, e.g., "Please stand back; you’re too close." "I cannot listen to you when you yell and scream at me that way. Let’s step outside to discuss this further."
  • Help the person problem solve and deal with the real issues when they become calmer.

Don't:

  • Get into an argument or shouting match.
  • Become hostile or punitive yourself, e.g., "You can’t talk to me that way!"
  • Press for explanations for their behavior.
  • Ignore the situation.
  • Touch the student.Back to Top

  The Suspicious Student

Typically, these students complain about something other than their psychological difficulties. They are tense, anxious, mistrustful, loners, and have few friends. They tend to interpret minor oversights as significant personal rejection and often overreact to insignificant occurrences. They see themselves as the focal point of everyone’s behavior and everything that happens has special meaning to them. They are overly concerned with fairness and being treated equally. Feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy underlie most of their behavior. They seem capable and bright.

Do:

  • Express compassion without intimate friendship. Remember, suspicious students have trouble with closeness and warmth.
  • Be firm, steady, punctual, and consistent.
  • Be specific and clear regarding the standards of behavior you expect.
  • Assure the student that you are her/his friend; agree you are a stranger, but even strangers can be concerned

Don't:

  • Be overly warm and nurturing.
  • Flatter or participate in their games; you don’t know their rules.
  • Be cute or humorous.
  • Challenge or agree with any mistaken or illogical beliefs.
  • Be ambiguous.
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  Urgent Assessment

If a student’s situation is urgent, she/he may have concerns within these critical boundaries:

  • Suicide
  • Fear of losing control and possibly harming/hurting someone
  • Sexual Assault
  • Physical assault or fear for the life of someone they know
  • Abuse
  • Recent death of a friend or family member

Do:

  • Call 805-756-2511.
  • Inform the receptionist who you are (faculty, staff, administrator, etc.).
  • Identify the need for an urgent assessment and ask to speak with the assessment counselor.
  • The counselor will then assist you in obtaining a same-day appointment for your student, if needed.
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  The Suicidal Student

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. It is important to view all suicidal comments as serious and make appropriate referrals. High risk indicators include: feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe loss or threat of loss; a detailed suicide plan; a history of previous attempts; history of alcohol or drug abuse; feelings of alienation and isolation.

Do:

  • Take the student seriously -- 80 percent of suicides give warning of their intent.
  • Be direct - ask if the student is suicidal, if she/he has a plan and if she/he has the means to carry out that plan. Exploring this with the student actually decreases the impulse to use it.
  • Be available to listen but refer the student to Counseling Services or a community hotline for additional help.
  • Administer to yourself. Suicide intervention is demanding and draining work.

Don't:

  • Minimize the situation.
  • Be afraid of planting the idea of suicide in an already depressed person’s mind (they will feel relieved that someone has guessed).
  • Overcommit yourself and therefore not be able to deliver on what you promised.
  • Ignore your limitations.
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  The Violent Student

Violence, because of emotional distress, is rare and typically occurs when the student’s level of frustration has been so intense or of such an enduring nature as to erode all of the student’s emotional controls. The adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," best applies here. This behavior is often associated with the use of alcohol and other drugs.

Do:

  • Prevent frustration and helplessness by quickly and calmly acknowledging the intensity of the situation, e.g., "I can see you’re really upset and are ready to lash out."
  • Explain clearly and directly what behaviors are acceptable, e.g., "You certainly have the right to be angry but breaking things is not OK."
  • Get necessary help (send a student for other staff, Public Safety, etc.).
  • Stay safe: have easy assess to a door; keep furniture between you and the student.

Don’t:

  • Ignore warning signs that the person is about to explode, e.g., yelling, screaming, clenched fists, threats.
  • Threaten or corner student.
  • Touch the student.
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  The Student Who Has Been Sexually Harassed

Sexual harassment involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct; it is usually found in the context of a relationship of unequal power, rank or status. It does not matter that the person’s intention was not to harass. It is the effect it has that counts. As long as the conduct interferes with a student’s academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning environment, it is considered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment usually is not an isolated one-time-only case but a repeated pattern of behavior that may include:

  • Comments about one’s body or clothing.
  • Questions about one’s sexual behavior.
  • Demeaning references to one’s gender.
  • Sexually oriented jokes.
  • Conversations filled with innuendoes and double meanings.
  • Displaying of sexually suggestive pictures or objects.
  • Repeated non-reciprocated demands for dates or sex.

Sexual harassment of students is covered by the Cal Poly Sexual Harassment Policy and the Office of Campus Relations. Common reactions by students who have been harassed is to doubt their perceptions, wondering if it was a joke, did it really happen or if, in some way, they have brought it on themselves. A student may begin to participate less in the classroom, drop or avoid classes, or even change majors.

Do:

  • Separate your personal biases from your professional role.
  • Listen carefully to the student, validate her/his experience.
  • Encourage the student to approach the person, directly or in writing.
  • Encourage the student to keep a log or find a witness.
  • Help student seek informal advice through a department chair, supervisor or advisor. If unresolved, approach a dean or vice president on campus.
  • Inform student that informal and formal complaints can begin in the Office of Campus Relations, located at the Health Center

Don’t:

  • Do nothing. Taking no action invalidates the student’s already shaky perception and puts the university in a vulnerable position should this behavior continue.
  • Overreact. Listen, support, and guide the student to appropriate channels.
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  The Anxious Student

Anxiety is a normal response to a perceived danger or threat to one’s well-being. For some students the cause of their anxiety will be clear but for others it is difficult to pinpoint the source of stress. Regardless of the cause, the resulting symptoms are experienced as similar and include: rapid heart palpitations; chest pain or discomfort; dizziness; sweating; trembling or shaking; and cold, clammy hands. The student may also complain of difficulty concentrating; always being "on the edge"; having difficulty making decisions; or being too fearful to take action. In rarer cases a student may experience a panic attack in which the physical symptoms occur spontaneously and intensely in such a way that the student may fear she/he is dying. The following guidelines remain appropriate in most cases.

Do:

  • Let them discuss their feelings and thoughts. Often this alone relieves a great deal of pressure.
  • Provide reassurance.
  • Remain calm.
  • Be clear and directive.
  • Provide a safe and quiet environment until the symptoms subside.

Don’t:

  • Minimize the perceived threat to which the student is reacting.
  • Take responsibility for their emotional state.
  • Overwhelm them with information or ideas to "fix" their condition.
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  The Demanding Passive Student

Typically even the utmost time and energy given to these students is not enough. They often seek to control your time and unconsciously believe the amount of time received is a reflection of their worth. You may find yourself increasingly drained and feeling responsible for this student in a way that is beyond your normal involvement. It is important that this student be connected with many sources of support on-campus and in the community in general.

Do:

  • Let them make their own decisions.
  • Set firm and clear limits on your personal time and involvement.
  • Offer referrals to other resources on and off campus.

Don't:

  • Get trapped into giving advice, special conditions, etc.
  • Avoid the student as an alternative to setting and enforcing limits.
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  The Student in Poor Contact with Reality

These students have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, the dream from the waking state. Their thinking is typically illogical, confused or irrational; their emotional responses may be incongruent or inappropriate; and their behavior may be bizarre and disturbing. This student may experience hallucinations, often auditory, and will report hearing voices. While this student may elicit alarm or fear from others, they are generally not dangerous and are more frightened and overwhelmed by you than you are by them. If you cannot make sense of their conversation, they may be in trouble

Do:

  • Respond with warmth and kindness, but with firm reasoning.
  • Remove extra stimulation from the environment (turn off the radio, step outside of a noisy classroom).
  • Acknowledge your concerns and state that you can see they need help.
  • Acknowledge their feelings or fears without supporting the misperceptions, e.g., "I understand you think someone is following you, but I don’t see anyone and I believe you’re safe."
  • Acknowledge your difficulty in understanding them and ask for clarification or restatement.
  • Focus on the "here and now." Ask for specific information about the student’s awareness of time, place and destination.
  • Speak to their healthy side, which they have. It’s OK to laugh and joke when appropriate.

Don’t:

  • Argue or try to convince them of the irrationality of their thinking as this commonly produces a stronger defense of the false perceptions.
  • Play along, e.g., "Oh yeah, I hear the voices (or see the devil)."
  • Encourage further discussion of the delusional processes.
  • Demand, command, or order.
  • Expect customary emotional responses.
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  The Student Under the Influence

Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug. It is common to find alcohol abusers in college populations also abusing other drugs, both prescription and illicit. Patterns of use are affected by fads and peer pressure. Currently, alcohol is the preferred drug on college campuses.

The effects of alcohol on the user are well known to most of us. Student alcohol abuse is most often identified by faculty when irresponsible, unpredictable behavior affects the learning situation (i.e., drunk and disorderly in class), or when a combination of the health and social impairments associated with alcohol abuse sabotages student performance. Because of the denial that exits in most substance abusers, it is important to express your concern about the student not in terms of suspicions about alcohol and other drugs but in terms of specific changes in behavior or performance.

Signs of Potential Abuse:

  • Frequent absences and improbable excuses for absences.
  • Lateness and leaving early from class.
  • Slurred speech, bloodshot eyes/glassy eyes, alcohol or drug odor.
  • Increase in confusion and tired look.
  • Drop in performance and inability to thoroughly and effectively handle assignments.
  • Altercations with others and emotional outbursts such as anger or excessive laughter.
  • For more information contact Counseling Services (805) 756-2511.

Do:

  • Confront the student with their behavior that is of concern.
  • Address the substance abuse issue if the student is open and willing.
  • Offer support and concern for the student’s overall well-being.
  • Maintain contact with the student after a referral is made.

Don’t:

  • Convey judgment or criticism about the student’s substance abuse.
  • Make allowances for the student’s irresponsible behavior.
  • Ignore signs of intoxication in the classroom.Back to Top

  Consultation

If you are unsure of how to handle a specific student, we encourage you to consult with one of the counselors on our staff. Call us at (805) 756-2511, inform the receptionist of who you are (faculty, staff, administrator), and ask to speak with one of our counselors. A counselor will return your call shortly. A brief consultation may help you sort out the relevant issues and explore alternative approaches. Overall, when dealing with most students in crisis situations, conveying your concern and willingness to help in any way you can (including referral) is probably the most important thing you can do. Your support, encouragement and reassurance will be particularly valuable to a student in crisis.
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