Emotionally Troubled or Difficult Students

Responding to Emotionally Troubled or Difficult Students

As a member of the University community, you have ongoing and direct contact with students. This places you in a position to identify students who are struggling with personal and/or academic concerns. How involved you want to be in the student's problems will likely depend on how you see your role in the University, your training, your experience, and your personality. These guidelines, your knowledge of the services available, and your awareness of your personal attributes can help you become more comfortable with determining when and how you wish to intervene with students.

All students will experience some level of stress. Some will face life events that are more challenging such as significant changes in a relationship, the death of someone close, family crises, or physical illness. Others will face severe difficulty with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, addictions and even psychotic episodes. How students respond to these challenges and how these challenges impact their academic functioning will vary greatly based on their coping abilities and personal situations.

Signs and Symptoms Warning of Student Distress

  • Excessive procrastination and poorly prepared work, especially if inconsistent with previous work.
  • Infrequent class attendance with little or no work completed.
  • Inability to focus or concentrate.
  • Unusual dependency: hanging around or making excessive demands for contact outside of normal periods of association.
  • Listlessness, frequently falling asleep in class or general lack of energy.
  • Repeated requests for special consideration.
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene.
  • High levels of irritability, including unruly, aggressive, violent, or abrasive behaviors.
  • Inability to make decisions despite your repeated efforts to clarify or encourage.
  • Excessive weight gain or loss.
  • Normal emotions that are displayed to an extreme degree or for a prolonged period of time: for example, tearfulness or nervousness.
  • Impaired or garbled speech and disjointed thinking.
  • Threats to others.
  • Reference to suicide as a current option.
  • Bizarre behavior that is obviously inappropriate, such as talking to "invisible people."
  • Social withdrawal.

Consider making a referral when

  • The issue is outside your range of knowledge or expertise.
  • Helping the student could compromise or change the status of your relationship with the student (perhaps it is too personal).
  • The student feels uncomfortable talking with you about the issue.
  • You feel the differences between you and the student are such that you cannot help him or her.
  • You feel overwhelmed, overly responsible for and worried about the personal safety of the student.
  • The student's behavior is a significant and ongoing disturbance to others.
  • You are extremely busy or are experiencing stress in your own life and are unable or unwilling to handle the student's needs.
  • You have talked to the student and helped as much as you can but further assistance is needed.
  • You think that your personal feelings about the student would interfere with your ability to be helpful.
  • The student admits there is a problem but does not want to talk to you about it.
  • The student asks for information or assistance which you are unable to provide.

How to approach the student

  • Ask to see the student in private.
  • Speak to the student in a straightforward fashion that shows concern for his or her welfare and focuses on observable behaviors.
  • Express your concern in a non-judgmental manner. (State what you observed)
  • Ask if the student is talking with anyone (friends or family) about the problem, pointing out that isolation is rarely useful when dealing with problems. Listen carefully.
  • Let the student know that counseling is accessible, free and confidential.
  • Suggest that the student go to the Counseling Center or call for an appointment while he or she is in your office.
  • Encourage the student that if counseling didn't help in the past to try it again.
  • Don't attempt to coerce or intimidate the student into counseling.

How to assist the student who is reluctant to seek counseling

  • Acknowledge and discuss the student's fears and concerns about seeking help.
  • Remind the student that counseling sessions are confidential.
  • Remind the student that counseling at the Counseling Center is free.
  • Point out that a situation does not have to reach a crisis state for him or her to benefit from professional help. A medical analogy may be useful.
  • Emphasize that, although some people believe that seeking counseling is an admission of weakness and failure, in fact it often takes considerable courage to face oneself and acknowledge one's limitations.
  • Offer to accompany the student to the Counseling Center.
  • Emphasize counseling as an empowering tool of change for those who choose to use it.

How to help a student make an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services

  • Offer the use of your phone for the student to call and make an appointment.
  • Consider making the call for the student, if the student wishes for you to do so while in your presence.
  • If you feel the situation is an emergency, call Counseling and Psychological Services (206) 296-6090, identify yourself, and inform the person who answers of the student's need to be seen immediately.
  • If necessary, walk the student over to CAPS. CAPS makes it a priority to see immediately any student in crisis.
  • Once a student becomes a client at CAPS, the terms of confidentiality apply fully. Unless the student signs Consent for Release of
  • Information, the CAPS may not release information about the student. That means you, as the referral source, will not be able to obtain any further information about the student.

Should a faculty member walk with the student to the Counseling and Psychological Services?

Sometimes offering to accompany a student over to CAPS will greatly reduce the student's anxiety about going to see a counselor. If you do agree to accompany the student, ask the student if he or she would like you to remain in the waiting room until he or she is seen by the intake counselor. If the student does not want you to walk over with him or her, or if you decide this is not an option for you, it is often helpful to provide the student with a brief description of the walk-in/intake procedure or to offer to call ahead and let CAPS know the student is coming.

What to do if the student resists or refuses to seek counseling

Unless the student is at risk for harm to self or others, counseling remains a voluntary option for students. Despite every effort on your part to facilitate a referral, the student may choose not to follow through on your suggestion that he or she seek counseling. If you find yourself in this situation, continue to express your belief that counseling could be beneficial, and keep your offer of help available to the student. Document the process for your personal files should you need to verify in the future your assistance to this student. If a student is at risk for harm to self or others, please report this information to Counseling and Psychological Services (206) 296-6090 or Public Safety (206) 296-5990 as soon as possible. If the student is with you, tell the student that you will arrange for him or her to be seen as soon as possible by a counselor. If the student leaves with the intent to disregard your referral, you should call Counseling and Psychological Services and Public Safety.

Consultation is always an option

If you have a concern about a student, feel free to call Counseling and Psychological Services and ask to consult with one of the staff members. Staff counselors will be glad to discuss specific options for you and the student. This does not obligate you or the student and often helps to answer your questions and concerns.

After a referral

Once a student has been referred to Counseling and Psychological Services he or she is in a confidential relationship. Often students will come back to you and let you know about their experience. If appropriate, a representative from CAPS may contact you to follow up or to gain additional information.

A referral to CAPS does not the mean the student necessarily will be removed from class or school, face university conduct sanctions or remain in treatment. Should you feel additional actions are necessary as a result of the student's conduct, you should contact the Office of Student Development, Public Safety or your academic dean.

Counseling and Psychological Services is open Monday - Friday from 8 a.m. to Noon and 1 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. The office is closed from Noon - 1 p.m. Urgent hours are Monday - Friday from 10am-11am and 3pm-4pm. If you need to reach a counselor after hours, contact Public Safety 206.296.5990 and explain that you need to speak to a counselor. Public Safety will contact the person on call you will be contacted by the counselor.