How to Help an Emotionally Distressed Student
Any member of the Northwest Missouri State University community may come into contact with a distressed student. Many students come to the attention of faculty or staff through journal entries or papers. Being aware of distress signals, methods of intervention, and sources of help for the student can help you feel more in control of situations that may arise. The mental health professionals at the Personal Development and Counseling Center are available to faculty and staff for consultation. Feel free to call us at 562-1348 if you would like to discuss any of these situations further. You may also refer to the section on handouts for more specific information.
Reports that are submitted regarding student behavior or concerns are submitted to a panel that represents a cross-disciplinary team of qualified campus professionals. This panel is referred to as the Behavior Intervention Team (BIT).
Listed below are some of the more prevalent signs of someone in distress. This list is intended to provide basic information only and is not a substitute for clinical intervention.
- Depression. While we all may feel depressed from time to time, "normal" depression may consist of only one or two symptoms and usually passes within a few days. Clinically depressed students will exhibit multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms are sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, withdrawal, poor hygiene, loss of self-esteem, and preoccupation with death.
- Agitation or acting out. This would represent a departure from normal or socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, restless or hyperactive, being antagonistic, and increased alcohol and/or drug abuse.
- Disorientation. You may witness an occasional student who exhibits a decrease in awareness of what is going on around them, forgetting or losing things, misperception of facts or reality, rambling or disconnected speech, and behavior that seems out of context or bizarre.
- Drug and alcohol abuse. Signs of intoxication during class or interactions with others are indicative of a problem that needs to be assessed. For more information, please visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Suicidal thoughts. Most [not all] people who attempt suicide communicate early messages about their distress. These messages can range from, "I'm going to kill myself" to a series of vague "good byes" or "I don't want to be here". Non-verbal messages could include giving away valued items, and putting legal, financial, and University affairs in order. Any of these messages should be taken seriously.
- Violence and aggression. You may become aware of students who may be dangerous to others. This may be manifested by physically violent behavior, verbal threats, threatening e-mail or letters, harassing or stalking behavior, and papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material.
- Anxiety/panic attacks. Anxiety is one of the most common complaints of students. Many students suffer from test anxiety. Symptoms can range from mild discomfort and agitation to feeling as though a heart attack is imminent. One of the simplest and most effective interventions for anxiety is deep and regular breathing.
- Eating disorders. Eating disorders are difficult to spot, in part because the student will very likely deny that there is a problem or make excuses for their physical symptoms. In general, an eating disorder has to be quite severe before a casual or occasional observer can identify signals. We are observing an increasing number of males with eating disorders -it's not just a female problem. For more information, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association.
While it is not expected that you be a "watchdog" or that you provide a thorough assessment, you may be first contact for a student in distress and in a position to ask a few questions. Following these guidelines can lead to a positive outcome for all.
- Safety First! Always keep safety in mind as you interact with a distressed student. Maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. If danger to you or the student seems imminent, call 911 or University Police at 562-1254.
- Journal entries or reports from other students. In some cases, you will hear about the distressed student from someone else or read about their concerns in a paper or journal. What you do next depends on many factors. If you feel you have a good rapport with the student and do not perceive imminent danger, you might want to call the student and have them come in to talk with you. Another alternative is to call to consult with a counselor as to what steps to take. You may wish to contact a Hall Director or the student's advisor. If you feel the student is in immediate danger, call University Police at 1254 or dial 911.
- Avoid escalation Distressed students can sometimes be easily provoked. Avoid threatening, humiliating, and intimidating responses. It is usually not a good idea to "pull rank" and assert authority unless you are certain of the student's mental health status. Distressed students are in need of listening and support. Empathizing with the student or normalizing his/her distress can calm an agitated student. One can always remind them of rules at a later time.
- Ask direct questions. Take a calm and matter-of-fact approach. Ask students directly if they are drunk, confused or if they have thoughts of harming themselves. Address specific behaviors that you are noticing and express your concerns. You need not be afraid to ask pointed questions. You will not be "putting ideas in their heads" by doing so. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.
- Do not assume you are being manipulated. While it is true that some students appear distressed in order to get attention or relief from responsibility, only a thorough assessment by a trained professional can determine if this truly is the case. Attention-seekers frequently have serious problems as well. Believe a student until he or she demonstrates otherwise.
- Know your limits. You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and referring them for further help. Some students will, however, need much more than you can provide. Respect any feeling of discomfort you may have and focus on getting them the assistance they require. You can do this by reinforcing them for confiding in you, being accepting and nonjudgmental, trying to identify the problem area, and indicating that seeking professional help is both positive and responsible.
- Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
- Feeling angry at the student
- Feeling afraid
- Having thoughts of "adopting" or otherwise rescuing the student
- Reliving similar experiences of your own
If you experience any of the above signs, you may consider further self-care, which may include seeking counseling through the Employee Assistance Program.
Many students are hesitant about seeing a therapist and it is generally helpful to project a positive and accepting attitude about counseling when referring a student to the Counseling Center. Reassure the student that all information is confidential.
We do ask that students call ahead to set up an intake appointment. It is fine if you want to initiate the call, but we will want to talk with the student as well. Our phone number is 562-1348 and we are located at Wellness Services.
We have regularly scheduled intake and daily crisis appointment times and try to accommodate students through those. Obviously not every crisis can be scheduled and so we also do walk-ins. It is always best to call ahead and alert the staff if you are referring a student you believe to be in crisis. Try to have someone walk the student over to Wellness Services.
Please remember that a counselor is available for consultation at 660-562-1348 during office hours (Monday thru Friday, 8:00AM - 5:00PM) if you should have questions or concerns.
During non-office hours, please contact University Police at 660-562-1254. They will connect you with a counselor via telephone.
Once a student becomes a client of Wellness Services, information becomes confidential. The staff will try to relieve any anxiety you may have about the student, but without a release from that student, we cannot even divulge if they are attending sessions. Please be understanding of our constraints regarding confidentiality.
- Health Services - (Wellness Services) - x1348
- Vice President for Student Affairs - Student Union - x1242
- Talent Development Center - 3rd floor Administration Building - x1726
- Career Services - 1st floor Administration Building - x1250
- University Police - Support Services Building - x1254 (on-campus) or 911 (off-campus) for crisis only