Managing Distress and Disruption

Generally, people show signs that they are struggling with personal concerns or problems. The following indicators may be useful in assessing whether or not a referral should be made:

Changes in mood, appearance or behavior

Some students will not directly tell you that there is a problem, but their appearance and behavior can be strong indicators. Deterioration of hygiene or appearance and dress may be visible cues of a problem. Behavioral changes may include a distinct decline in academic performance, poor attendance, an uncharacteristic need for additional attention or repeated requests for extensions. Students experiencing psychological challenges might exhibit angry outbursts, crying episodes, extreme levels of activity or conversations that do not make sense. Students making threats to classmates and engaging in angry, harassing behaviors should not be tolerated and action needs to be taken to stop them. Psychological problems may be driving these behaviors so intervention at this level is also important.

Traumatic changes in personal relationships

The death of a family member or close friend, difficulties in important relationships, a divorce or break-up, and changes in family responsibilities might increase stress and overwhelm the individual's usual capacity to cope. If you are aware that a student might be experiencing such a problem, you might wish to initiate a conversation with them.

Drug and alcohol abuse

Individuals often use drugs and alcohol to cope with life stresses and psychological difficulties. Unfortunately, substance abuse frequently causes a further decline in social, academic, and work functioning.

Academic difficulties

Students whose academic performance declines to a noticeable degree may be feeling overwhelmed in other areas of life. Some students might exhibit difficulties with concentration in class or performance on exams.

Learning problems

Some students find the demands of college-level academic work to be greater than they anticipated. While it is expected that students will go through an adjustment period, those who demonstrate a consistent discrepancy between their ability and performance may need further assistance. Poor study habits, test anxiety, or an undiagnosed learning disability may be affecting performance.

References to suicide

If a student talks or writes about suicide, this should be taken seriously. Thoughts of suicide are not necessarily dangerous, but they may indicate that the student is feeling overwhelmed or depressed. Do not assume that talk of suicide is intended solely to get attention. If you become aware of a student who is thinking about suicide, please read over the section Suicide Prevention. Therapists at CAPS are available for a consultation if you are unsure how to intervene or if the student is reluctant to take your referral.

Leaving school

When a student indicates that they are considering leaving school or transferring, a referral to CAPS may be appropriate. Often a complex number of issues are at play. There may be other issues that need to be addressed rather than a change in schools.

 

Managing Student Distress and Disruption

Dealing with a student who is distressed or whose behavior is causing distress to others is complex. There is no single "right" way to approach a student. You have your own style of approaching and responding to others. Furthermore, we each have differing capacities to deal with others' problems and distress. It is important to know your personal limits as a helper.

If you choose to help a distressed student, or if a student approaches you to talk about personal problems:

  • Request to see the student in private (unless safety concerns warrant additional assistance).
  • Speak directly and honestly to a student when you sense that they are in academic and/or personal distress.
  • Ask if the student is talking to anyone, such as family or friends, about the problem. People tend to isolate themselves when in distress but this is rarely a useful coping mechanism.
  • If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental 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."
  • 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 feeling ("It sounds like you're not accustomed to this much work in so short a period of time and you're worried about failing.")
  • Avoid judging, evaluating and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. It is important to respect the student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.
  • Behavior that is strange or inappropriate should not be ignored. Comment directly on what you have observed.
  • Do not discuss your concerns with other students.
  • Please see Managing Student Distress and Disruption for more information on recognizing and responding to students in distress.

If you are concerned about a student's suicide potential, keep in mind that mental health professionals assess suicide potential, in part, by asking if the student has a plan for exactly how they would act on these thoughts, when and where the student intends to carry out the plan, and if they have ever attempted suicide before.

The more specific and lethal the plan, act of making a previous attempt and the accessibility to carry out the plan, the higher the risk that a suicide will occur.

You need not be afraid to ask these questions. These questions will not furnish them with new ideas. Most people who are actively suicidal are willing to answer these questions. Conversely, many people consider suicide from time to time in passing. The less specific and lethal the plan (e.g., "I guess I'd take a couple sleeping pills sometime"), the less likely a suicide attempt, although one should not dismiss references to seemingly non-lethal means of attempting suicide.