Assisting Students in Distress
Faculty and staff members are often in a unique position to identify and help students who are in distress. Sometimes students cannot or will not turn to family or friends. A student may view you as a trustworthy person for whom to turn. Your expression of concern may be a critical factor in saving a student’s academic career or even their life.
The purpose of this page is to help you recognize some of the symptoms of student distress and identify specific options for interventions and referrals to campus resources. The UCI Counseling Center is available to assist you with these situations and to consult with you on how to intervene with a student.
At a particular time the severity and number of stressors overwhelm one’s ability to cope. College students typically encounter a great deal of stress during their university years. Typical stressors include: transition to college, academic and career concerns, social/peer relationships, romantic relationships, family issues, and financial problems. Sometimes, students don’t have the internal or external resources to effectively manage the stress they are experiencing. They become overwhelmed. For a variety of reasons, some cannot turn to family members for help or guidance. Many students come to the university with histories of serious trauma (e.g., histories of physical and sexual abuse, sexual assault, war, natural disasters, witness to violence, difficult family environments) or they experience serious trauma or loss during their college years. Some serious mental health disorders (e.g., schizophrenia) do not show signs until the young adult years. Other students, come with preexisting mental health problems that are manageable, but who can unravel when they do not adhere to their treatment plan (e.g., medication and/or counseling sessions, etc.).
Along with the ordinary stressors, graduate and medical students can struggle with their own special challenges that coincide with early, middle and later adulthood (e.g., adjusting to a new environment, effectively managing academic transition times, dealing with career path issues, balancing multiple roles with their family of procreation as well of family of origin, maintaining appropriate boundaries with faculty and students, etc.). Like undergraduates, the stress can overwhelm their capacity to cope. Students may feel alone, isolated, and even hopeless when faced with academic and life challenges. These feelings can easily disrupt academic performance and may lead to dysfunctional coping and serious consequences such as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and/or attempts, self-injury or other mental health concerns.
Tips for Recognizing Students in Distress
All of us at some time in our lives may have had challenging days, feel sad, depressed, and/or upset. However, here are some suggestions to better identify a student whose reaction is beyond what’s typical and suggest that they get additional support.
Students experiencing a serious problem may exhibit behaviors which may not be disruptive to others but, signal that something is wrong and assistance is suggested. These behaviors may include:
- Change from consistently passing grades to poor performance
- Change in class attendance or unexplained absences
- Changed patterns of interaction that are unusual or markedly different, i.e., avoidance of participation, marked anxiety when called upon, domination of discussions, etc
- Changes in other characteristics that may indicate that the student is having trouble managing stress successfully include poor concentration; fatigue; sad mood; decreased interest in activities, etc
Students in moderate distress may exhibit behaviors that indicate significant emotional suffering. These students may also be reluctant or unable to acknowledge a need for personal help. Behaviors may include:
- Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions, especially if the student appears uncomfortable or highly emotional while disclosing the circumstances prompting the request
- New or repeated behavior which pushes the limits of decorum and interferes with effective management of the immediate environment
- Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses which are obviously inappropriate to the situation
- Other characteristics that suggest the student is having trouble managing stress successfully may be depressed mood; swollen red eyes, lethargy; falling asleep in class; very rapid speech; marked change in personal dress and hygiene
Severely distressed students exhibit behaviors that signify an obvious crisis and necessitate emergency care. These problems are the easiest to identify. Examples may include:
- Highly disruptive behavior (e.g. hostility, aggression, violence, etc.)
- Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech; unconnected, disjointed, or rambling thoughts
- Loss of contact with reality (hearing or seeing things which others cannot see or hear; beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability)
- Stalking behaviors
- Inappropriate communications (including threatening letters, email messages, harassment, incoherent communication, etc.)
- Overtly suicidal thoughts (including referring to suicide as a current option or in a written assignment)
- Threats to harm others
How Can I Help a Distressed Student?
Faculty and staff are not expected to monitor students’ behavior nor are they expected to be clinicians. However, you may be the first contact for a student in distress and to provide an early opportunity to respond with the eventual help the student needs. As a “point-person” for the students care, just by asking a few questions that could lead to your making a pain relieving or life enhancing referral for the student. If you feel at all uneasy about what to do, seek consultation. When you set up a time to talk with the student, try to talk with the student without being rushed or interrupted. Keep your own safety in mind when you interact with a student who is in distress. In some instances, it is best to let the UC Irvine police conduct a welfare check with the student. Consultation can help you decide whether you or others should initiate a discussion with the student.
Tips for Talking with Students in Distress
Extend a genuine statement of interest in and concern for the student. Be calm and matter-of-fact in your approach. State clearly in behavioral terms what you have noticed that has led to your concern (e.g., “I’ve noticed that you’ve been absent from class lately, and I’ve been concerned. How are you doing?
Listen in a non-judgmental fashion. Support begins with understanding. Students in distress often feel very vulnerable and are sensitive to real or imagined criticism.
Try to understand the student from his or her perspective.
If appropriate, reassure the student that many college students feel overwhelmed and stressed out.
Take the anxiety out of seeking help. Reassure the student that counseling is here for students because college is a time for growth and development which can sometimes be painful. You can affirm that seeking professional help is a positive and responsible thing to do, a sign of strength in reaching out for available resources.
When Should I Refer a Student To Counseling?
It is time to refer the student to counseling when…
- You don’t know how to help the student
- You feel that the student’s circumstances are overwhelming
- You feel unable to provide all the support the student needs
- You feel that you have reached your limit or have exhausted your ideas on how to help
- The student’s struggles leave you feeling helpless and anxious
- You feel angry or intimidated by the student’s comments or behavior
- You are spending large amounts of time on the student’s problems
Contact the Counseling Center
Whenever you are in doubt about making a counseling referral, consult with a supervisor, colleague, or mental health provider. You may call the UCI Counseling Center at (949) 824-6457 between the hours of 8–5pm and speak to the urgent care therapist. The therapist will be able to talk with you about your concerns and identify appropriate resources. You may not have to give the student’s name in order to receive consultation that might be instrumental for resolution
A student whose behavior has become threatening, violent, or significantly disruptive may need a different kind of approach involving the police or Office of Student Judicial Affairs. You may want to call the University Police Department (949) 824-5223 or the Dean of Students Office (949) 824-5181 for consultation.