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Helping a Student in Distress

As a faculty or staff member interacting daily with students, you are in an excellent position to recognize behavior changes that characterize the emotionally troubled student. A student's behavior, especially if it is inconsistent with your previous observations, could well constitute an attempt to draw attention to her/his plight: "a cry for help." Your ability to recognize the signs of emotional distress, and your courage to acknowledge your concerns directly to the student, are often noted by students as the most significant factor in their successful problem resolution.

Recognizing the Signs of a Students in Distress

Marked Changes in Academic Performance or Behavior

  • Uncharacteristically poor academic performance and preparation
  • Excessive absences or tardiness
  • Repeated requests for special consideration especially when this represents a change from previous functioning
  • Avoiding or dominating discussions
  • Excessively anxious when called upon
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Intense emotion or inappropriate responses

Behavioral or Interpersonal Problems

  • Asking instructor for help with personal problems
  • Complaints from other students Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
  • Tearfulness Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Problems with roommate or family
  • Change in personal hygiene or dress
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Disjointed thoughts

References to Suicide, Homicide or Death

  • References to suicide or homicide in verbal statements or writing
  • Expressed thoughts of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Highly disruptive behavior (hostile, aggressive, violent, etc.)
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, unconnected or disjointed thoughts)
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that aren't present, beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability)
  • Isolation from friends or family

You should seek emergency help immediately if a student is talking about direct harm to self or others or acting in a bizarre or disruptive manner. The following list of phone numbers represents local support options in case of an emergency.

Emergency Phone Numbers

Counseling Services (508.999.8650)
UMD's Police Department (x9191 or 508.999.9191)
Assistant Dean of Students Office (508.910.6402)

Practical tips for helping a distressed student

  1. Demonstrate your respect for the student by talking to the student when both of you have sufficient time and are in a private place free from disturbance by others.
  2. Discuss your observations that led you to become concerned. Avoid being judgmental or making assumptions about the cause of their apparent distress.
  3. Keep the tone of your talk supportive, reassuring, and empathic.
  4. Express concern for the student in clear, direct, behavioral, non-judgmental terms (e.g., “I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned,” rather than “Why haven't you been in class?” or “Where have you been lately?”). Let the student respond to your concerns.
  5. Re-emphasize your support and care, regardless of how she/he responds. Listen in a sensitive, nonthreatening way. Discuss your observations in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, “I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned.”
  6. You may want to mention that you have seen other students struggle with similar issues, and that the multiple stressors associated with attending college can be overwhelming.
  7. Students do not have to struggle with their issues on their own. If appropriate, mention that there are additional people on campus who can help and offer to assist the student in making these contacts.
  8. Give hope, assuring the student that help is available. Help the student identify options for action and explore the possible consequences.
  9. Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations. Be frank with the student about the limits on your ability to help him or her.
  10. Refer when the problem is more serious than you feel comfortable handling or you have helped as much as you can and further assistance is needed.

Though the student may reject your offer of support or referral, remain supportive and remember that you need not be alone in your efforts to help. Feel free to consult with the Counseling Center staff before and/or after you speak with the student.

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