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Helping A Friend (Or Yourself) With Emotional Distress

Most college students encounter academic, personal, and social stress at some point during their educational experience. This is true at The University of Iowa as well as at other universities. Typically, students cope successfully with the demands of college and the experiences that go along with it, but for some students these difficulties can become overwhelming and unmanageable. Friends are often the first point of contact in obtaining advice and support. Your expression of interest and concern could be critical in helping your friend reestablish emotional equilibrium.

How Can You Tell If Someone is Emotionally Distressed? 

At one time or another, everyone feels upset. However, when some of the following are present, significant emotional distress is possibly present:

  • Noticeable decline in quality of school performance
  • Noticeable signs of depression (e.g., persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, apathy, fatigue, tearfulness, changes in sleep and eating habits, distractibility, sudden weight loss or gain)
  • Nervousness, agitation, irritability, aggressiveness, non-stop talking
  • Bizarre behavior or speech
  • Extreme or sudden dependency on family or friends
  • Marked change in personal hygiene
  • Talk of suicide, either directly or indirectly
  • Comments in letters or emails that arouse concern

Any one of the above signs present in someone does not absolutely indicate serious distress. However, several signs and changes, which are extreme and sudden likely, point to potential mental health concerns. If there is doubt about the seriousness of the problem, consult a University Counseling Service (UCS) staff member about evaluating the situation and taking the most appropriate steps.

What Can You Do to Help?

The options you choose depend upon the urgency of the situation. For students who are having difficulty but seem able to cope, you may choose not to intervene and just deal with it on more of a friendship level. If you judge a situation to be more urgent, you might decide that counseling or a mental health consultation is more appropriate.

When you think that counseling may be the best option, it is usually good to express your recommendation in a matter-of-fact manner. Make it clear that this represents your best judgment based on your observations, information, and life experience. Be specific regarding the behavior that has raised your concerns and avoid attributing anything negative to the individual's character.

Except in an emergency (threat or actual harm to self or others), the option must be left open for someone to accept or refuse a referral to counseling. If reluctance is expressed for any reason, simply express your acceptance of those feelings so that your relationship with him or her is not jeopardized. Give them room to consider alternatives by suggesting that maybe you can talk about it again after they have had some time to think it over.

If a conclusion is reached that counseling might be useful, there are several possible steps to take, depending on the urgency of the situation and how committed one is to following through on the referral. You can give him or her information about the UCS and urge them to call for an appointment. If someone is threatening suicide or has plans to harm someone else, dialing 9-1-1 is often the best and quickest option for intervention.

What Happens at the UCS?

Once the student contacts the UCS, an appointment is made for an initial interview. This is usually within a few days from the time of contact, but can often happen the same day.

The UCS receptionist will let the student know about the necessary paperwork. During the first meeting, a counselor assesses the student's needs and collaborates regarding how the UCS may be able to help. Potential options include: a single consultation appointment with perhaps an additional follow-up meeting; ongoing brief individual counseling (several weekly 50-minute sessions); group counseling (weekly meetings with three to seven other students and one or two therapists); workshops; or referral to another agency on campus or in the community (typically for medication, open-ended therapy, and/or specialty treatment). Many students leave the initial appointment feeling able to handle their concerns without further assistance.

 Counseling services provided at the UCS are for University of Iowa students and are free and confidential. Information is released only with a student's specific written permission. This means that a counselor cannot discuss the student's situation with anyone unless the student provides written permission. Exceptions to confidentiality may occur if there is clear danger to self or others or in the case of court-ordered subpoenas. We can offer a single-session consultation and referral to non-students.

Consultation Is Available to You

If you have concerns and questions about the mental health of your friend or yourself, staff members at the UCS are available to help you:

  1. Assess the situation, its seriousness, and potential referral.
  2. Learn about resources, both on- and off-campus, so you can suggest the most appropriate help when talking with the student.
  3. Learn the best way to make a referral if appropriate.
  4. Clarify your own feelings about the situation and consider the ways you can be most effective.

Typical Counseling Concerns and Issues Presented by College Students

  • Roommate Problems
  • Depression & Anxiety
  • Homesickness
  • Isolation
  • Relationship Problems
  • Academic Concerns
  • Ethnic/Racial Identity
  • General Personal Concerns
  • Loneliness
  • Sleep Problems
  • Sexual Identity
  • Career Decision Making
  • Grief Issues
  • Eating Disorders

Contacting the University Counseling Service

Phone: (319) 335-7294

Website: http://www.uiowa.edu/ucs/

Address: 3223 Westlawn South

If you need assistance after hours, you are encouraged to call the Crisis Center at (319) 351-0140; Department of Public Safety at (319) 335-5022; or UIHC Emergency Room at (319) 356-2233