Helping Students in Emotional Distress: Guide for Faculty and Staff

Many college students encounter academic, personal, and social stress during their educational experience. Most students cope successfully with the demands of college life and the interpersonal experiences that go along with it, but for some students these difficulties can become overpowering and unmanageable.

Faculty and staff are frequently in the most direct position to identify students in distress. Moreover, staff and faculty are often perceived by students as the first point of contact in obtaining advice and support. Your expression of interest and concern may be critical in helping a student reestablish the emotional equilibrium necessary for academic success. This guide is designed to assist you in working with students in distress. UCS staff members are available to offer further consultation.

Recognizing Distressed Students

A referral for counseling can be made when you believe a student’s problems go beyond your experience and expertise, or when you feel uncomfortable helping a student with an issue. A referral may be made either because of the way the student’s problems are interfering with academics or with your teaching, or because observation of the student’s personal behavior raises concerns apart from academic work.

At one time or another, everyone feels upset. However, when some of the following are present, the student is probably in distress:

  • Noticeable decline in quality of work or writing and class participation; increased absences, or failure to turn in work
  • Prolonged appearance of depression (e.g., sad expression, apathy, tearfulness, distractibility, weight loss)
  • Nervousness, agitation, irritability, aggressiveness, non-stop talking
  • Bizarre behavior or speech
  • Extreme dependency on faculty or staff, including spending much time visiting during office hours or other times
  • Marked change in personal hygiene
  • Talk of suicide, either directly or indirectly (e.g., "I won't be around to take that exam anyway." or "I'm not worried about getting a job, I won't need one.")
  • Comments in a student’s paper that arouse concern

Any one of the above signs present in a student does not absolutely indicate the student is in serious distress. Many disturbances during college are relatively transient. However, you may become alarmed by changes which are extreme or by significant changes that last longer than is typical. If there is doubt about the seriousness of the problem, consult a UCS staff member about evaluating the situation and taking the most appropriate steps.

What Can You Do?

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, to limit your interaction to the academic issue, or to deal with it on a more personal level. If you judge a situation to be more urgent, you might decide that more active and timely involvement on your part is appropriate.

How Do You Make A Referral?

When you have decided a student might benefit from counseling, it is usually best to express your recommendation in a matter-of-fact manner. Make it clear that this represents your best judgment based on your observations of the student. Be specific regarding the behavior that has raised your concerns and avoid attributing anything negative to the individual's character.

Except in an emergency, the option must be left open for the student to accept or refuse counseling. If the student is reluctant for any reason, simply express your acceptance of those feelings so that your relationship with the student is not jeopardized. Give the student room to consider alternatives by suggesting that maybe you can talk after the student has had some time to think it over.

Once the student has agreed that counseling might be useful, there are several possible steps to take, depending on the urgency of the situation and how committed the student is to following through on the referral. You can give the student information about the UCS and urge the student to call for an appointment. Another option is to accompany the student yourself. The UCS staff would appreciate your calling ahead if a student is being brought over or sent directly in an emergency, so that plans can be made to have a counselor available.

In emergency situations involving students who are unwilling or unable to seek help on their own, staff and faculty members may call the UCS at 335-7294. For any referral, whether the student accepts it or not, follow up with him or her later to show your continuing interest.

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 even happen the same day. In an emergency, the student will be seen that day.

Information forms are completed prior to the student being seen. During the first meeting, a counselor assesses the student's needs and the ways the UCS may be able to help. Options the counselor considers include individual counseling, groups or workshops, or referral to private or community counseling services. Some students may leave the initial appointment feeling able to handle their concerns without further assistance.

Counseling services provided at the UCS for students are free and confidential. Information is released only with a student's 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.

Consultation Is Available To You

If you have concerns and questions about a student, 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 offcampus, 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 student and consider the ways you can be most effective.

Other Important Information

University Counseling Service is staffed by eleven licensed psychologists and three predoctoral interns. Our office is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (including over the noon hour), Monday through Friday. We also encourage you to visit our website (http://www.uiowa.edu/ucs/) for more information about our services and agency. Our phone number is 335-7294. If an emergency occurs after hours, you are encouraged to call the Crisis Center at 351-0140; Department of Public Safety at 335-5022; or UIHC Emergency Room at 356-2233. If you have concerns about another staff or faculty member, Faculty and Staff Services can be reached at 335-2085.

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation in order to participate in these programs, please contact University Counseling Service in advance at 335-7294.

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