How to Assist Students who may be in Distress

A guide to helping students who display distressed behaviors:

Danger is everywhere even though what makes students anxious is often unknown; not knowing what is expected and conflict are primary causes of anxiety. Unknown and unfamiliar situations raise their anxiety; high and unreasonable self-expectations increase anxiety also. These students often have trouble making decisions.

Helpful strategies:

  • Let them discuss their feelings and thoughts. Often this alone relieves a great deal of pressure.
  • Reassure when appropriate.
  • Remain calm.
  • Be clear and explicit.

Strategies to avoid:

  • Make things more complicated.
  • Take responsibility for their emotional state.
  • Overwhelm with information or ideas.

Depressed students show a multitude of symptoms, e.g., guilt, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, as well as physical symptoms such as decreased or increased appetite, difficulty staying asleep, early awakening and low interest in daily activities. They show low activity levels because everything is an effort and they have little energy.

Helpful strategies:

  • Let the student know you are aware he/she is feeling down and you would like to help.
  • Reach out more than halfway and encourage the student to express how he/she is feeling, for he/she is often initially reluctant to talk, yet others' attention helps the student feel more worthwhile.

Strategies to avoid:

  • Say "Don't worry," "Crying won't help," or "Everything will be better tomorrow."
  • Be afraid to ask whether the student is suicidal if you think he/she may be

These students have difficulty distinguishing from reality; the dream from the waking state. Their thinking is typically illogical, confused, disturbed; they may coin new words, see or hear things which no one else can, have irrational beliefs, and exhibit bizarre or inappropriate behavior. Generally, these students are not dangerous and are very scared, frightened and overwhelmed.

Helpful strategies:

  • Respond with warmth and kindness, but with firm reasoning
  • Remove extra stimulation of the environment and see them in a quiet atmosphere (if you are comfortable in doing so)
  • Acknowledge your concerns and state that you can see they need help, e.g., "It seems very hard for you to integrate all these things that are happening and I am concerned about you; I'd like to help."
  • Acknowledge the feelings or fears without supporting the misconceptions, e.g., "I understand you think they are trying to hurt you and I know how real it seems to you, but I don't hear the voices (see the devil, etc.)."
  • Reveal your difficulty in understanding them (when appropriate), e.g., "I'm sorry but I don't understand. Could you repeat that or say it in a different way?"
  • Focus on the "here and now." Switch topics and divert the focus from the irrational to the rational and real
  • Speak to their healthy side, which they have. It's O.K. to joke, laugh or smile when appropriate

Strategies to avoid:

  • Argue or try to convince them of the irrationality of their thinking, for it makes them defend their position (false perceptions) more
  • Play along, e.g., "Oh yeah, I hear the voices (see the devil)."
  • Encourage further revelations of craziness
  • Demand, command or order

Students are especially susceptible to drug abuse. A variety of substances are available that provide escape from pressing demands. The most abused substance is alcohol. Alcohol and other drug related accidents remain the greatest single cause of preventative death among college students.

Helpful strategies:

  • Be on alert for signs of drug abuse:
    • preoccupation with drugs
    • inability to participate in class activities
    • deteriorating performance in class
    • periods of memory loss (blackouts)
  • Share your honest concern for the person
  • Encourage him/her to seek help
  • Get necessary help in instances of intoxication

Strategies to avoid:

  • Ignore the problem
  • Chastise or lecture
  • Encourage the behavior

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. The suicidal person is intensely ambivalent about killing himself/herself and typically responds to help; suicidal states are definitely time limited and most who commit suicide are neither crazy nor psychotic. High risk indicators include:

  • feelings of hopelessness and futility
  • a severe loss or threat of loss
  • a detailed suicide plan
  • history of a previous attempt
  •  history of alcohol and drug abuse
  •  feelings of alienation and isolation

Helpful strategies:

  • Take the student seriously: 80 percent of suicides give warning of their intent
  • Acknowledge that a threat of or attempt at suicide is a plea for help
  • Be available to listen, to talk, to be concerned, but refer the student to Counseling & Psychological Services when you are getting overwhelmed
  • Administer to yourself. Helping someone who is suicidal is hard, demanding and draining work

Strategies to avoid:

  • Minimize the situation or depth of feeling, e.g., "Oh, it will be much better tomorrow."
  • Be afraid to ask the person if they are so depressed or sad that they want to hurt themselves (e.g., "You seem so upset and discouraged that I'm worried if you are considering suicide.")
  • Over commit yourself and, therefore, not be able to deliver on what you promise
  • Ignore your limitations

Students usually become verbally abusive when in frustrating situations which they see as being beyond their control; anger and frustration become displaced from those situations to you. Typically, the anger is not directed at you personally.

Helpful strategies:

  • Acknowledge their anger and frustration, e.g., "I hear how angry you are."
  • Rephrase what they are saying and identify their emotion, e.g., "I can see how upset you are because you feel your rights are being violated and nobody will listen."
  • Allow them to ventilate, get the feelings out, and tell you what is upsetting them.
  • Reduce stimulation; invite the person to your office or another quiet place if this is comfortable
  • Tell them that you are not willing to accept their verbally abusive behavior, e.g., "When you yell and scream at me that way, I find it hard (impossible) to listen."
  • Tell them they are violating your personal space and to please move back (if they are getting physically too close), e.g., "Please stand back; you're too close."
  • Help the person problem-solve and deal with the real issue when he/she becomes calmer

Strategies to avoid:

  • Get into an argument or shouting match
  • Become hostile or punitive yourself, e.g., "You can't talk to me that way!"
  • Press for explanation or reasons for their behavior. "Now I'd like you to tell me exactly why you are so obnoxious."
  • Look away and not deal with the situation
  • Give away your own rights as a person

Helpful strategies:

  • Prevent total frustration and helplessness by quickly and calmly acknowledging the intensity of the situation, e.g., "I can see you're really upset and really mean business and have some critical concerns on your mind."
  • Explain clearly and directly what behaviors are acceptable, e.g., "You certainly have the right to be angry but hitting (breaking things) is not O.K."
  • Stay in open areas
  • Divert attention when all else fails, e.g., "If you hit me, I can't be of help."
  • Get necessary help (other staff, University Police, Counseling & Psychological Services, Student Health Services)
  • Remember that student discipline is implemented by the Dean of Students Office
  • Download Judicial Affairs' Preventing and Responding to Disruptive Behavior in Class
  • Download Judicial Affairs' Responding to Disruptive Behavior
  • You may occasionally have students in the classroom or in your office whose destructive behavior is neither violent nor immediately threatening, but does interfere with on-going activities. The Discipline Officer in the Dean of Students Office can assist you to find a way to deal with this kind of problem.

Strategies to avoid:

  • Ignore the warning signs that the person is about to explode, e.g., yelling, screaming, clenched fists, statements like, "You're leaving me no choice."
  • Threaten, dare, taunt, or push into a corner
  • Touch