Distressed Students

Referral Information for Students in Distress

Students typically encounter a great deal of stress during their university years (e.g., academic, social, family, work, financial). While most students cope successfully with the demands of university life, for some the pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable. Students may feel alone, isolated, helpless and even hopeless. These feelings can easily disrupt academic performance and may result in harmful behaviors such as substance abuse and attempts at suicide.

Faculty and staff members are in a unique position to identify and help students who are in distress. This may be particularly true for students who cannot or will not turn to family or friends. Anyone who is seen as caring and trustworthy may be a potential resource in times of trouble. Your expression of interest and concern may be a critical factor in helping struggling students reestablish emotional equilibrium, thus saving their academic careers or even their lives.

This website can help you recognize some of the symptoms of student distress and to provide some specific options for intervention and for referral to campus and community resources. Counseling staff are available to assist you with problem situations and to consult with you on whether to intervene with a particular student.

Recognizing Distressed Students

At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. The following may help you to identify some symptoms which, when present over a period of time, suggest that the problems with which the person is dealing are more than the "normal" ones.

Marked Change in Academic Performance or Behavior

  • Poor performance and preparation
  • Excessive absences or tardiness
  • Repeated requests for special consideration especially when this represents a change from previous functioning
  • Avoiding participation
  • Dominating discussions
  • Displaying excessive anxiety when called upon
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Exaggerated emotional response

Unusual Behavior or Appearance

  • Depressed or lethargic mood
  • Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene or dress
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Strange or bizarre behavior indicating loss of contact with reality

References to Emotional or Life Stressors

  • Problems with roommates, family, or romantic partners
  • Experiencing a death of a significant other
  • Experiencing a physical or sexual assault
  • Experiencing discrimination based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability
  • Experiencing legal difficulties
  • Any other problem or situation that is experienced as a loss or stress

References to Suicide, Homicide or Death

  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Verbal or written references to suicide
  • Verbal or written references to homicide or assaultive behavior
  • Isolation from friends, family and classmates

What Can You Do?

If you choose to approach a student you are concerned about or if a student reaches out to you for help with personal problems, here are some suggestions which might make the opportunity more comfortable for you and more helpful for the student.

Talk to the student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied. Give the student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel cared about as an individual and more confident about what to do. If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, "I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned," rather than "Where have you been lately? You should be more concerned about your grades."

Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you. Try to include both content and feelings, ("It sounds like you're not accustomed to such a big campus and you're feeling left out of things.") Let the student talk.

Give hope. Assure the student that things can get better. It is important to help him or her realize there are options, and that things will not always seem this hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy or other professionals on campus. Recognize, however, that your purpose should be to provide enough hope to enable the student to consult a professional or other appropriate person and not to solve the student's problems.

Avoid judging, evaluating and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. Such behavior is apt to push the student away from you and from the help that he or she needs. It is important to respect the student's value system, even if you do not agree with it.

Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations. It is important to maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student or staff/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations, exam schedules, etc. You may be able to help a student understand options related to a deferred grade, late drop or withdrawal from the semester. If a student seems to feel overly distressed about making a decision about options, personal assistance can be facilitated by a member of the counseling staff.

Refer: In making a referral, it is important to point out that: 1) help is available, and 2) seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure. It may be helpful to point out that seeking professional help for other problems (medical, legal, car problems, etc.) is considered good judgment and an appropriate use of resources. If you can, prepare the student for what to expect. Tell the student what you know about campus services or other community options.

Timing: It is important to be aware that options for referral vary depending on the time of day. Our homepage is kept up-to-date with our business hours, and students can receive 24-hour assistance from Contact Helpline (652-4400) for community referral information, or Dauphin County Crisis Intervention (232-7511) for emergency aid.

Follow-up: Arrange a time to meet again to solidify the student's resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist in this process. Check later with the student to see that the referral appointment was kept and to hear how it went. Provide support while the student takes further appropriate action or pursues another referral if needed.

Consult: When in doubt about the advisability of an intervention, call our office for counseling and consultation.

What Can A Student Expect At The First Session?

Personal counseling services are free for all currently enrolled PSU students. A student's initial interview with a professional counselor is generally arranged by scheduling an appointment. You can assist this process by offering the student the immediate use of your phone.

Students may schedule an appointment by calling or visiting the Counseling Services office. The staff assistant will arrange an initial meeting, usually within a few days. Personal counseling is a free service.

In more urgent or crisis situations, an immediate or same-day intervention may be required. For example, a crisis might include consideration of suicide, experiencing a sexual assault, or feeling overwhelmed and disoriented from severe panic. In order to arrange for a crisis intervention session, the student should alert the staff assistant to the crisis nature of the situation. If you feel that a student might be reluctant to ask for a crisis appointment, you can facilitate the process by making this request for the student.

During the initial interview, the counselor and student begin an assessment of the student's needs and the ways in which campus or other services might be able to help. Except in rare situations where disclosure is legally or ethically mandated, counseling services are confidential.

If the student and intake counselor agree that further counseling is appropriate, the student and counselor review the available options on campus and with service providers in the community to arrive at a tentative plan for additional services.

Counseling on campus is available to students to resolve many of the concerns addressed by the students. However, some students are referred to community resources for specialized or longer-term counseling.

Finally, some students may leave the initial interview feeling able to handle their problems on their own. Students can always return to if they want to explore whether additional services would be helpful.

Consultation Is Available

If you have decided to help a student at risk, you may still have questions about how to best handle the situation. Staff members in Counseling Services would be happy to help you:

  • Assess the situation, its seriousness and the potential for referral.
  • Learn about resources, both on and off campus, so that you can suggest the most appropriate help available when talking with the student.
  • Find the best way to make the referral.
  • Clarify your own feelings about the student and consider ways you can be most effective.
  • Discuss follow-up concerns after the initial action or referral.

A student whose behavior has become threatening, violent or significantly disruptive may need a different kind of approach than a student who is open and willing to seek help. Students who pose a serious danger to themselves or others may require the intervention of counseling staff and University Police.

Please note that due to confidentiality requirements, we will be able to talk about the student's specific situation or their contact with us, only if the student has given us written permission to do so.