If Your Student is in Emotional Distress: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

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.

Parents and caregivers are frequently in a position to identify when their student is in distress. Moreover, parents and caregivers are often perceived as a first point of contact in obtaining advice and support. Your expression of interest and concern may be critical in helping your student reestablish emotional equilibrium.

This guide is designed to assist you in helping your loved ones identify they are in emotional distress. UCS staff members are available to offer further consultation.

How Can You Tell if your Student is Distressed?

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

  • Noticeable decline in quality of school performance.
  • Prolonged appearance of depression (e.g., sad expression, apathy, tearfulness, distractibility, sudden weight loss or gain).
  • Nervousness, agitation, irritability, aggressiveness, non-stop talking.
  • Bizarre behavior or speech.
  • Extreme dependency on family, including exceptionally long/distressing phone calls or visits home.
  • Marked change in personal hygiene
  • Talk of suicide, either directly or indirectly.
  • Comments in a student's letters or emails home that arouse concern.

Any one of the above signs present in someone does not absolutely indicate 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 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, 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. In proposing that your student seek out counseling services, it can be helpful for you to be well-informed about the suggestions you are offering.

  • The most important way to be supportive is to listen and try to be nonjudgmental and uncritical. (It is hard at times not to say "I warned you" or "I told you so" but this is rarely helpful)
  • Spend time with your child if possible. Just being present even when there is silence is helpful.
  • Let them know that you care and that you are willing to listen. Say so directly.
  • Be encouraging and hopeful that the problem will eventually resolve and they will eventually feel better, while also letting them know that you understand the problem is important to them (otherwise they wouldn't be in so much distress).
  • You want to help your child to take action and feel better but do not try to help them solve the problem until you have taken the time to listen.
  • You want your child to develop problem solving skills. Ask them what things they think might help before you offer your own solutions. Unless you are concerned about your child's safety, encourage and support them in trying out their own solutions before you insist they try yours.
  • When your child is in distress, it is okay to share similar experiences or feelings but do not make yourself the focus of the conversation.
  • Reassure your child that you will respect their privacy, but avoid promising total secrecy in case you need to reveal something to keep your child safe.
  • Be clear that while you want to be helpful, there are limits to your support and expertise. Encourage them to speak to a professional when what they need is beyond what you can provide.
  • Tell your child that it is a positive sign to seek help when you need it, and that we all do so from time to time. It is a sign of maturity to know when you need help and to ask for it.
  • If you are concerned that your child may be thinking about suicide, ask directly. Say "are you thinking about suicide?" Do not say "you aren't thinking about suicide, are you?" as this gives the impression that you do not really want to know if the answer is "yes."
  • Recommend or strongly suggest that your child see a counselor at the Counseling Center rather than telling them they must go, unless the situation is urgent.
  • Follow up and find out how your child is doing and whether things are changing.

When you call us for a consultation, we can talk with you about how to provide the above experiences for your child.

General Information About the University Counseling Service

We are located at 3223 Westlawn, the same building that Student Health is in, on the west side of the Iowa River. Our office is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., including over the Noon hour, Monday through Friday and our phone number is (319) 335-7294. For after hours emergencies, you can contact Public Safety at (319) 335-5022. We offer individual, couples, and group therapy as well as psychoeducational and outreach programs. Individual and couples therapy is most typically in a brief format, whereas group therapy may be available in a longer format. In addition to our regular therapy offerings, single-session consultation and crisis intervention appointments are also available for students.  A variety of personality and career inventories are offered to students who request them. While our counseling services are offered at no direct cost to students, testing services do have a nominal fee attached.

Making a Referral to the Counseling Service

A referral for counseling can be made when you believe your student's problems go beyond your ability to help. A referral may be made either because of the way problems are interfering with academics or because you have been given information concerning personal behavior which raises concerns apart from academic work.

When you have decided that your 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, 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, the option must be left open for her or him to accept or refuse 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 the student 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. Other options are to accompany them yourself or suggest that a trusted friend come along. The UCS staff would appreciate your calling ahead if someone 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, you may call Public Safety (335-5022) if the urgency of the situation demands it. For any referral, whether the student accepts it or not, follow up with him or her later to show your continuing interest. If problems are brought up related to problems in the residence hall, you can also contact Residence Services.

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. 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 ways 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 for University of Iowa students 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.

Consultation Is Available To You

If you have concerns and questions about your student, staff members at the UCS are available to help you:

  • Assess the situation, its seriousness, and potential referral.
  • Learn about resources, both on- and off-campus, so you can suggest the most appropriate help when talking with the student.
  • Learn the best way to make a referral if appropriate.
  • 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
  • Eating Disorders
  • Loneliness
  • Sleep Problems
  • Sexual Identity
  • Career Decision Making
  • Grief Issues
  • General Personal Concerns

Additional Information

Academic Advising Center (319) 353-5700
Crisis Center (319) 351-0140
Public Safety (319) 335-5022
Rape Victim Advocacy Program (319) 335-6001
Student Disability Services (319) 335-1462
Student Health Service/Health Iowa (319) 335-8370
University Counseling Service (319) 335-7294
University Housing (319) 335-3000
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Emergency Room (319) 356-2233

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