For Faculty and Staff
Although many students seek counseling on their own, faculty and staff members are often the first to recognize an emotionally distressed student. Students may turn to you because they know you and respect you. While your role does not include “counseling” the student, you may find it helpful to have some basic information about how to help in these situations. Benton, Benton and Perl (2006) propose that an effective faculty/staff response to students in distress will include “The Three R’s”: RECOGNIZE, RESPOND, REFER.
What are some signs of distress in students?
The college years are often referred to as the “best years” of one’s life. However, Kadison and DiGeronimo (2004) suggest that “despite the appearance of comfortable status, secure environment, and a pleasant social world, a multitude of hidden problems have caused a steady and alarming rise in the severity of students’ mental health problems across the nation in colleges and universities.”
The fact is that in an academically competitive university setting and at this developmental stage most students are likely to experience a moderate to high level of stress. As a result, many students develop emotional, interpersonal or spiritual problems that can interfere with their academic performance. Some lack the personal skills to excel academically or socially. Depression, acute anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse are not uncommon. In your interactions with students, it is important to be able to recognize signs that a student may be struggling.
Some behaviors may seem obvious and serious to you, such as:
- Coming to class or work under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Marked deterioration in personal hygiene
- Angry or threatening outbursts
- Uncontrollable crying
- Talking about hurting themselves or someone else
- Strange or bizarre behavior or ideas
Other behaviors may be less obvious, such as:
- Anxiety, nervousness, agitation
- Forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating
- Low energy, sad appearance, hopelessness
- Irritability, low frustration tolerance
- Fatigue, reports of sleeplessness
- Extreme weight gain or loss
- Excessive procrastination, dramatic change in class or work performance
- Extreme dependency (e.g., the student who takes much more of your time than most other students)
Students may also present problems that you may not be able to directly help them with, such as:
- Family issues
- Substance abuse
- Health problems
- Financial challenges
- Career and life planning
- Faith and spiritual concerns
- Meaning and identity development
How can I be helpful when I recognize a distressed student?
Worthington (1982) suggests that the most important step in helping another person is giving them the impression that you understand them. This involves ASKING good questions, LISTENING to their concerns, and EVALUATING what the person needs from you.
If you have recognized signs of distress in a student, begin by ASKING a question that communicates your concern – something as simple as “Hey, I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself lately…how have things been going?” or “We haven’t touched base in a while, I thought I’d just check in to see if you’re doing ok?” Though some faculty and staff are reluctant to approach a student who they think is struggling, most students are thankful for the concern.
Nouwen (1997) states that “LISTENING is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their true selves.” Listening is as much an attitude as a skill; removing distractions, focusing on the individual, and approaching the situation with respect, authenticity and openness are key to helping a student feel cared for and understood.
EVALUATING what a student needs from you will assist in formulating your next steps. Sometimes just allowing students to dump for a few minutes is helpful. Other students may require help brainstorming next steps or making a plan to address their situation. The support and encouragement of a respected faculty or staff member are what often motivate students to seek out further assistance. Finally, following up with a student to see that they have taken those next steps communicates your investment and gives the student a sense of accountability for his or her own well being.
What should I do in a crisis situation?You may encounter a situation in which your evaluation leads you to believe a student is in crisis. Crisis situations are not uncommon when working with college students, and it is helpful to have a plan for handling them. If you believe a student is in immediate danger of killing or harming him/herself or another person, CALL 911 immediately! Once emergency personnel are notified, call the University Police Department (582-3360) as soon as possible so that they can direct emergency personnel to you and provide onsite presence if needed.
If you are concerned about a student but do not believe the danger is immediate, or if you are unsure, Personal Growth & Counseling Center (PGCC) counselors are available for consultation by phone (582-3969). You may also call the University Police Department (582-3360) in this situation if you feel their presence would help to insure the welfare of yourself, the student or any other student present. CSUMB’s UPD is well trained to handle all types of situations, including psychological ones. If they determine that a mental health professional is needed, they will contact the PGCC as well.
There may be a situation in which you have a student with you (e.g., after class or in your office) and are very concerned. If you are able, please walk the student over to the PGCC. If you are not available to walk the student over, you might ask another staff member in your department for assistance.
If possible, please call the PGCC first, so that we can make arrangements to have someone available to see the student soon after you arrive. You might say to the student: “You seem to be upset about this. I’d like to help you more by connecting you with people on campus who will be able to offer you additional support. Why don’t I call them and set it up for you to be seen right away? Then we can walk over there together.”
Many faculty and staff who have done this have said that, although they didn’t necessarily know how to solve the student’s problem, they felt good about being able to get help for the student.
How do I make a referral?
If you believe it might be helpful for a student to receive counseling (or at least to be evaluated by a mental health professional), please suggest that they come to the PGCC. As stated above, a good way to do this is to listen, to express concern for the student, and then to suggest PGCC services.
As you would imagine, saying “I think you need therapy” may make the student defensive and resistant to the idea of counseling. Since most students see “stress” as a more acceptable problem, using that term in your referral usually works well. For example, you might say, “From what you’ve talked about, it sounds as if you are under a lot of stress. We have people here on campus who are specially trained to help students deal with stress. I’d be willing to help you get an appointment. Would that be OK?”
If the student says “yes”, please call the PGCC at (831) 582-3969 and ask for information about walk-ins and appointments. If the student says “no” or “I’ll think about it,” you might suggest that they explore the PGCC website, write down the PGCC telephone number for them (582-3969), or give them a copy of the PGCC informational brochure, and say “I hope you’ll give this a try.”
What resources are available?
Crisis management: Any member of the CSUMB community (faculty, staff or student) experiencing a crisis can come to the PGCC and meet with a counselor. A “walk-in” counselor is usually available during normal business hours. The counselor will work with the person to form a plan for helping them through this difficult time, and follow up to make sure the plan is working effectively.
Ongoing counseling: Enrolled CSUMB students are eligible for evaluation and ongoing counseling services. All PGCC services are confidential. Students are typically seen for a brief initial appointment during walk-in hours. At this time, their problems are explored and the PGCC staff helps them decide what services might be most helpful to best meet their needs. If this is a crisis situation, appropriate steps are taken to provide immediate care for the student.
PGCC provides brief individual and group therapy. There is no charge for these services. In addition, we have many quality low-cost community referrals available for those who want or need long-term counseling.
Groups: The PGCC offers a variety of groups for students, and group participation is often the treatment of choice for many issues. Group is a unique opportunity to experience a type of treatment that cannot be found in many mental health settings. We offer interpersonal process groups, theme groups, psycho-educational groups and workshops, brown bag lunches and forums.
Consultation: Consultation with PGCC staff is available to any CSUMB faculty or staff member by phone or in person. If you are concerned about a student and are uncertain about what to do, please call us (582-3969), identify yourself as a faculty or staff member, and say you are concerned about a student or situation and would like to consult with a counselor. Usually this service is available immediately.
Care Team: The Student Affairs Care Team meets weekly to identify potential students in crisis and concerns within the university community that may impact student well-being in order to generate awareness and plan collaborative responses. The Care Team is currently composed of representatives from Student Affairs and UPD, departments generally involved with the emotional well being of their student constituents.