How to Intervene
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 impaired students reestablish emotional equilibrium, thus saving their academic careers or even their lives.
The purpose of this section is to help you recognize some of the symptoms of student distress and to provide some specific guidelines for intervention and for referral. The resources tab can help you access information about where to go for help. The University’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is available to assist you with problem situations and to consult with you about whether to intervene with a particular student.
Tips for Recognizing Distressed Students
At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. The following may help 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
- Avoiding participation
- Dominating discussions
- Excessively anxious when called upon
- Disruptive behavior
- Exaggerated emotional response that is obviously inappropriate to the situation
Unusual Behavior or Appearance
- Depressed or lethargic mood or functioning
- 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
- Observable signs of injury
References to Stressful Life Events
- 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 disabilities
- Experiencing legal difficulties
- Any other problem or situation that is experienced as a loss or stressor
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? Intervention Guidelines
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.
Set the Scene
Set the scene by arranging for sufficient time and privacy where you can devote your full attention to the student. (However, if you are worried that the student may be dangerous to you, you might want to keep the door ajar and make sure that others know what is happening)
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.
If you have initiated the contact. Express your concern in behavioral and non-judgmental 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.”
Assure the student that things can get better. It is important to help them realize there are options, and that things will not always seem this hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy, coaches 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 students’ 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 through CAPS.
While 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 CAPS services or other campus and community options.
It is important to be aware that options for referral vary depending on the day and time of day. CAPS is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for initial appointments and crisis intervention. After hours and on weekends students who are in crisis are advised to call the CAN HELP Community Crisis line at 1-800-643-5432 for emergency support.
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 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.
When in doubt about the advisability of an intervention, call CAPS at 863-0395. After hours and on weekends, the Community Crisis Line of Centre County Mental Health can provide consultation regarding mental health emergencies at 1-800-643-5432.
When you are concerned that a student may be a threat to themselves or others, it’s important to ask specific questions in order to elicit information to guide your next step. “How are you coping? Have things felt so badly that you have thought of harming yourself?” “Do you feel able to control the anger you are feeling?” When intense and immediate threats of harm to self or others occur, it is important to stay with the student until a disposition is arranged ie the student is seen by a mental health professional or the police. Students who pose a serious danger to themselves or others can be evaluated by a county crisis worker to determine if involuntary hospitalization is indicated to protect the student or other’s life and safety.