Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress

Guidelines for Faculty, Staff, and Teaching Assistants

Prepared by Rice Counseling Center

College can be a very stressful period in a person's life. Highly selective schools like Rice attract students who are driven to excel academically, sometimes at great personal cost. When the reality of the college experience does not meet students' expectations, they may react in ways that are counter-productive. In addition, other personal factors and external events may challenge their ability to cope with life at Rice. National trends also suggest that more students are entering college with significant emotional problems.

Students handle these personal dilemmas with varying degrees of success. In advising students, you may be one of the first to recognize that a student is experiencing difficulty coping or students may approach you directly with their problems. Whatever the case, it may be helpful for you to know some of the signs and symptoms of psychological distress and ways you can respond effectively to students displaying such symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Distress

Students differ in the ways they respond to stressful events; nevertheless, we can be alert to certain common indicators:

A. Unusual Changes in Behavior or Appearance

  1. Marked decline in class attendance, grades, assignments completed on time
  2. Noticeable change in personal hygiene and appearance
  3. Extreme mood swings (extremely angry one minute, subdued the next)
  4. Acute increase in activity (endless talking, fidgeting, difficulty relaxing, etc.)
  5. Exaggerated reactions to events (highly irritable, tearful, aggressive or abrasive)
  6. Cognitive impairment (difficulty concentrating or making decisions; thoughts may seem bizarre, illogical or incoherent)
  7. Marked changes in sleep, eating and/or drinking habits
  8. Obvious emotional signs: fearful, sad, depressed or anxious
  9. Increased dependency (makes increasing demands on your time, cannot seem to make a decision on one's own, etc.)
  10. References to harming self or others

B. Concerns About Personal Matters

  1. Complaints about physical health problems (lower back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal problems are often stress-related)
  2. Despondency about relationship problems (death of a friend or family member; difficulties with family matters, dating or marital relationships, friendships, etc.)
  3. Concerns about self or a significant other with regard to drug and alcohol misuse or dependence
  4. Feeling hopeless about one's life and powerless to effect change

C. Requests for Help

  1. Direct requests ("I am so incredibly stressed-out, I don't know what to do")
  2. Indirect requests ("yeah, I haven't been doing much of anything lately"; or, a pattern of class absences, frequent angry outbursts, etc.)
  3. If you listen and observe carefully, you may notice even subtle verbal and nonverbal cues of distress

Suggestions for Responding to Students in Distress

  1. Be available to students. Let them know you are interested and concerned about their welfare. Try to listen to students from their perspective and put them at ease by reducing the interpersonal distance that typically exists in an authority figure/student relationship.
  2. One way to bring up these issues with students is to relate those behaviors, which have triggered your concern (e.g., declining grades, chronic absenteeism, etc.), and ask the student if s/he knows what could be contributing to these problems. The goal is not to pry into students' personal lives but to confront their difficulties in a constructive fashion and encourage them to take appropriate action.
  3. If a student is willing to talk to you about problems, listen attentively, show genuine concern and try to avoid judgmental responses. If it appears that a referral to the Center is appropriate, make that suggestion after you have heard the student's story and expressed your concern.
  4. If students are reluctant to talk, or tend to brush off your concerns, acknowledge their comments while also making the point that help is available: "I am glad you feel that you have the situation under control. Sometimes, however, things can pile up and seem pretty overwhelming. It can be a tremendous relief to have an objective person help you sort out your problems. In fact, that is why many Rice students take advantage of the Counseling Center."
  5. If students feel uncomfortable about being referred to the Counseling Center because they feel it implies that they are "crazy" or "weak", reassure them the majority of people who use the Center have very typical college student concerns which have become burdensome. Also, seeking counseling is actually seen as a sign of strength, not weakness.
  6. Students often need an extra push to get help. Don't hesitate to strongly encourage that distressed students seek at least a consultation with us. Also, encourage them to seek help before their concerns become intolerable.
  7. If you are confronted with an EMERGENCY situation (e.g., student informs you s/he has taken a drug overdose, is threatening violence or actually acting-out physically, etc.), call the Campus Police (713-348-6000) and the Center (713-348-3311) if it is a psychiatric/psychological problem. The Campus Police are trained and equipped to take students to the hospital in the event of an emergency.

Suggestions for Making Referrals to the Rice Counseling Center

If you feel a student needs counseling or at least a consultation with a Center staff member, we suggest that you take the following steps (in increasing order of urgency):

  1. Propose that the student call or come by the Center to make an appointment
  2. Encourage the student to call the Center from your office to set up a meeting with a counselor
  3. Call the Center yourself to set up an appointment while the student is still in your office
  4. Call the Center to notify us that a student needs to be seen right away, and walk the person over to our offices yourself

Utilizing the Counseling Center's Consultation Services

Whenever you have a question or concern about a student or how to make a referral, do call and consult with us. If your call is urgent, please inform the secretary so that she can connect you with one of the professional staff as quickly as possible.