Responding to distressed students: How to help
Any member of The College of New Jersey community might come into contact with a distressed student. Being aware of distress signals, methods of intervention, and a source of help for the student can assure you are ready should that time come. Counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services are available to faculty and staff for consultation. Feel free to call us at 771.2247 if you would like to discuss any concerns with us.
Things to keep in mind
Listed below are some of the common signs of someone in distress. This list is intended as a guideline for identifying unusual levels of distress, not as a diagnostic tool.
• Depression . We all may feel depressed from time to time. A depressed mood may have generate only one or two symptoms and usually pass within days. Clinically depressed students will exhibit multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms are loss of interest in pleasurable activities, depressed mood, crying, a decrease in function, sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, withdrawal from the usual pattern of social activity, poor hygiene, loss of self-esteem, or preoccupation with death.
• Suicidal Thoughts. Most people who attempt suicide communicate early messages about their distress. These messages can range from “I don’t want to be here”, to a series of vague “good-byes”, to “I’m going to kill myself.” Non-verbal messages could include giving away valued items, or putting legal, financial, and college affairs in order. All suicidal messages or behaviors should be taken seriously .
• Chronic or Pronounced Anxiety. In some situations a student may be unable to relax or may exhibit signs of constant vigilance or compulsive behavior that they appear not to be able to control. A sign that this may be significant is if you become anxious as a consequence of being with the student.
• Agitation or Acting Out. One of the features of this area is that there is an extraordinary departure from socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, restlessness or hyperactivity, being antagonistic, increased alcohol and/or drug use, inappropriate sexual behavior, or other risk taking behaviors.
• Disorientation. Some distressed students may seem “out of it.” There may be a decrease in awareness of what is going on around them, a tendency to forget or lose things, misperception of facts or reality, rambling or disconnected speech, or behavior that seems out of context or bizarre.
• Drug and Alcohol Abuse. Signs of intoxication during class or interaction with others are indicative of a problem that requires attention.
• Violence and Aggression. Physically violent behavior, verbal threats, threatening e-mail or letters, harassment, stalking behavior, or papers/exams that contain violent or threatening material may indicate danger to others. It is better to be cautious about such behavior – and respond to it – then to overlook it while hoping “things will just blow over”.
While it is not expected that you be a “watchdog” or that you provide a thorough assessment, you may be the first one to notice a student’s distress and be in a position to ask a few questions. Following these guidelines can lead to a positive outcome for all parties.
• Safety First! Always keep safety in mind as you interact with a distressed student. Maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. If there appears to be an imminent danger to you or the student, call 911 or Campus Police at 771.2167 .
• Avoid Escalation. Distressed students can sometimes be easily provoked. Avoid threatening, humiliating, and intimidating responses. It is usually not a good idea to “pull rank” and assert authority unless you are certain of the student’s mental health status. Distressed students are in need of listening and support. Rules can be discussed at a later time.
• Ask Direct Questions. Take a calm and matter-of-fact approach. Ask students directly if they are drunk, confused or if they have thoughts of harming themselves. You need not be afraid to ask these questions. You will not be “putting ideas in their heads” by doing so. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.
• Do Not Assume You Are Being Manipulated. While it is true that some students appear distressed in order to get attention or relief from responsibility, only a thorough assessment can determine this. Attention-seekers can have serious problems and be in danger, too.
• Know Your Limits. You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and/or referring them for further help. Some students, however, will need much more than you can provide. Be alert for any feelings of discomfort you may have and focus on getting them the assistance they require. You can do this by praising them for confiding in you, being accepting and nonjudgmental, trying to clarify what they see as the problem area, and indicating that seeking professional help is a positive and responsible thing to do. Some emotional signs you might experience that indicate you may have over-extended yourself include:
• Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
• Feeling angry at the student
• Feeling afraid
• Having thoughts of “adopting” or otherwise rescuing the student
• “Reliving” similar experiences of your own
If you identify any of the above reactions in yourself, it is especially important that you recruit help for yourself and/or seek consultation about the situation. Remember, Counseling and Psychological Services is here to help! Come by Eickhoff Hall 107 or call 771.2247.