Guide to Helping a Distressed Student
California State University, Bakersfield
Contents: (Click to jump to that section)
General Guidelines for Helping the Emotionally Distressed Student
Signs of Distress
Making a Referral
Specific Guidelines for Helping Distressed Students
The Suicidal Student
Warning Signs of Potentially Suicidal Behavior
The Verbally Aggressive Student
The Violent or Physically Destructive Student
The Substance Abusing Student
The Depressed Student
The Anxious Student
The Demanding, Passive Student
The Student in Poor Contact with Reality
The Suspicious Student
The following materials have been developed as a result of the combined efforts of counseling centers
which comprise the Organization of Counseling Center Directors in Higher Education (OCCDHE). They are
designed to assist faculty and staff in identifying and intervening with students who are in
students commonly experience emotional distress due to personal and academic problems. In the college community, about 10 percent of students may be distressed
by depression, acute anxiety,
drug or alcohol abuse, or more serious
mental health concerns. We at the Counseling Center have developed
a group of information sheets that addresses many of these issues.
Many students realize that stress is interfering with their personal and academic goals and seek
counseling services on their own. However, friends, faculty, and staff are often
the first to recognize that a student may not be functioning well academically and/or emotionally.
Students may turn to you because they know you and respect your opinion. You
may observe that at certain times of the year, particularly during
examinations and holidays, students experience increased anxiety. The
student's behavior, especially if it is inconsistent with your experience of
him/her, could well constitute an inarticulate attempt to draw attention to
his/her plight, for example, turning in assignments late. Other signs may be
far less subtle and require immediate action, such as verbal threats or
- Increased irritability, undue aggressive or abrasive behavior
- Excessive procrastination, poorly prepared work
- Infrequent class attendance, little or no work completed
- Depression, lack of energy
- Marked change in personal hygiene
- Withdrawal, fearfulness
- Dependency (e.g., the student who hangs around you or makes excessive appointments to see you)
- Indecisiveness, confusion
- Bizarre, alarming, or dangerous behaviors
Openly acknowledging to the students that you are aware of their distress, that you are sincerely
concerned about their welfare, and that you are willing to help them explore their alternatives can have
a profound effect. We encourage you whenever possible to speak directly to a student when you sense that
he/she is in academic and/or personal distress.
- Request to see the student in private.
- Briefly acknowledge your observations and perceptions of their situation and express your concerns directly and honestly.
- Listen carefully to what the student is troubled about and try to see the issue from his/her point of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.
- Strange and inappropriate behavior should not be ignored. The student can be informed that such behavior is distracting and inappropriate
- Your receptivity to an alienated student will allow him/her to respond more effectively to your concerns.
- Involve yourself only as far as you are willing to go. At times, in an attempt to reach or help a troubled student, you may become more involved than time or skill permits. Extending oneself to others always involves some risk but it can be a gratifying experience when kept within realistic limits.
If you are unsure how to respond to a specific student, consult with one of the professional staff at
the Counseling Center. Suggestions will be made for approaches you can take with the student. The
counselor can also assist with the referral process.
The Counseling Center is committed to helping students increase their skills and resources in meeting
their academic and interpersonal challenges and in becoming responsible and productive adults. The
professional staff consists of a psychologist, marriage and family therapists, as well as masters level
interns and trainees.
Our services include individual therapy and crisis response, as well as numerous
general studies courses on topic
such as stress management, assertiveness skills, and relationships. Staff also offer training and
consultation services to student organizations, academic departments and other university agencies that
have a high degree of contact with students.
If you feel that professional counseling might be beneficial, refer the student to the Counseling
Center. Be direct in letting the student know that you believe a counselor would be of help in this
situation. Inform the student that the service is both confidential and free of charge. A mutual decision
is best. Don't force the issue if the student takes a defensive posture - simply restate your concerns
and recommendations. If the student is receptive, you can suggest that he/she call for an appointment at
654-3366. You may even offer to contact a counselor and provide background information. If the situation
seems urgent, you can call the Counseling Center and request to speak with
an available counselor, or you may walk the student to the Counseling
Counseling Center - 654-3366
Student Health Center - 654-2394
Campus Police -
|Adult Protective Services
||P.O. Box 511, 93302
|Alliance Against Family Violence
||1921 19th Street
|Aunt Cherie's Home
||3811 Mt Vernon Ave
|Child Protective Services
||1603 California Ave.
|College Community Services
||16940 Highway 14 (Mojave)
|DCC-Substance Abuse Services
||1631 30th Street
|Henrietta Weill Child Guidance
||3611 Stockdale Highway
|Jason's Retreat (for women)
||3316 Laverne Ave.
|Kern County Mental Health
||2151 College Ave.
||2525 N. Chester
|Clinica Sierra Vista -- Delano
||828 High S., Suite C
|Clinica Sierra Vista -- Frazier Park
||3717 Mt. Pinos Way, Suites C & D
|Clinica Sierra Vista -- Lamont
||8787 Hall Road
|Kern Medical Center
||1830 Flower Street
||901 Olive Drive
|Good Samaritan Hospital Southwest
||5201 White lane
|Crisis Stabilization Unit, @
Kern County Mental Health
|2151 College Ave.
1-800 Numbers (24 hours):
Alliance Against Family Violence - 800-273-7713
- Domestic Violence
- Rape and Sexual Assault
Victims of Crime Resource Center - 800-842-8467
Police/Emergency Services - 911
The Suicidal Student
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. The suicidal person is intensely
ambivalent about killing himself/herself and typically responds to help; suicidal states are definitely
time limited and most who commit suicide are neither crazy nor psychotic. High risk indicators include:
feelings of hopelessness and futility; a severe loss or threat of loss; a detailed suicide plan; history
of a previous attempt; history of alcohol or drug abuse; and feelings of alienation and isolation.
Suicidal students usually want to communicate their feelings; any opportunity to do so should be
- take the student seriously; 80 percent of suicides give warning of their intent.
- acknowledge that a threat of or attempt at suicide is a plea for help.
- be available to listen, to talk, to be concerned, but refer the student to the Counseling Center, the Student Health Center or other appropriate agencies when you yourself are getting overwhelmed.
- administer to yourself. Helping someone who is suicidal is hard, demanding, and draining work.
- minimize the situation or depth of feeling, e.g., "Oh it will be much better tomorrow."
- be afraid to ask the person if they are so depressed or sad that they want to hurt themselves (e.g., "You seem so upset and discouraged that I'm wondering if you are considering suicide.")
- over commit yourself and, therefore, not be able to deliver on what you promise.
- ignore your limitations.
Warning Signs of
Potentially Suicidal Behavior
If you observe any of the following warning signs that might indicate suicidal risk, communicate them
to a mental health professional as soon as possible.
- Expression of desire to kill him/herself or wishing to be dead.
- Presence of a plan to harm self.
- Means are available to carry out a plan to harm him/herself.
- Suicide plan is specific as to time, place, notes already written.
- High stress due to grief, illness, loss of new job, academic difficulty, etc.
- Symptoms of depression are present, such as loss of appetite, sleep, severe hopelessness or agitation, feeling of exhaustion, guilt/shame, loss of interest in school, work or sexual activities, change or deterioration of hygiene.
- Intoxication or drug abuse (including alcohol).
- Previous suicide attempt by the individual, a friend or a family member.
- Isolation, loneliness or lack of support.
- Withdrawal or agitation.
- Preparation to leave, giving away possessions, packing belongings.
- Secretive behavior.
- Major mood changes, e.g. elation of person who has been depressed, extroversion of previously quiet person.
- Indirect comments implying death is an option, e.g., person implies he/she may not be around in the future.
The Verbally Aggressive Student
Students sometimes become verbally abusive when confronted with frustrating situations which they
perceive as beyond their control; anger and frustration become displaced from those situations to you.
Typically, the anger is not a personal attack, although it may be directed at you.
- acknowledge their anger and frustration, e.g., "I hear how angry you
- rephrase what they are saying and identify their emotion, e.g., "I
can see how upset you are because you feel your rights are being
violated and nobody will listen."
- allow them to ventilate, get the feelings out, and tell you what is upsetting them.
- reduce stimulation; invite the person to your office or other quiet place if this is comfortable.
- tell them that you are not willing to accept their verbally abusive
behavior, e.g., "When you yell and scream at me that way, I find it hard
(impossible) to listen."
- tell them they are violating your personal space and to please move
back (if they are getting physically too close), e.g., "Please stand
back; you're too close."
- help the person problem-solve and deal with the real issues when he/she becomes calmer.
- get into an argument or shouting match.
- become hostile or punitive yourself, e.g., "You can't talk to me that way!"
- press for explanation or reasons for their behavior. "Now I'd like you to tell me exactly why you are so obnoxious."
- look away and not deal with the situation.
- give away your own rights as a person.
The Violent Or Physically Destructive Student
Violence related to emotional distress is very rare and typically occurs only when the student is
completely frustrated, feels powerless, and is unable to exert sufficient self-control. The adage,
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," best applies here.
- prevent total frustration and helplessness by quickly and calmly acknowledging the intensity of the situation, e.g., "I can see you're really upset and really mean business and have some critical concerns on your mind."
- explain clearly and directly what behaviors are acceptable, e.g., "You certainly have the right to be angry but hitting (breaking things) is not O.K."
- stay in open area.
- divert attention when all else fails, e.g., "if you hit me, I can't be of help."
- get necessary help (other staff, University Police, Health Center, Counseling Center.)
- remember that student discipline is implemented by the Dean of Students Office.
- ignore warning signs that the person is about to explode, e.g., yelling, screaming, clenched fists, statements like, "You're leaving me no choice."
- threaten, dare, taunt, or push into a corner.
The Substance Abusing Student
Given the stresses of university life, students are especially susceptible to drug abuse. A variety of
substances are available that provide escape from pressing demands. These drugs soon create their own set
of problems in the form of addiction, accident proneness, and poor health. The most abused substance--so
commonplace we often forget that it is a drug--is alcohol. Alcohol and other drug-related accidents
remain the greatest single cause of preventable death among college students.
- be on the alert for signs of drug abuse: preoccupation with drugs, inability to participate in class activities, deteriorating performance in class, periods of memory loss (blackouts)
- share your honest concern for the person
- encourage to seek help
- get necessary help in instances of intoxication
- ignore the problem
- encourage the behavior
The Depressed Student
Typically, These Students Get The Most Sympathy. They Show A Multitude Of Symptoms, E.G., Guilt, Low
Self-Esteem, Feelings Of Worthlessness, And Inadequacy As Well As Physical Symptoms Such As Decreased Or
Increased Appetite, Difficulty Staying Asleep, Early Awakening, Low Interest In Daily Activities.
Depressed Students Are Frequently Lethargic, But Sometimes Depression Is Accompanied By Agitation.
- let student know you're aware he/she is feeling down and you would like to help.
- reach out more than halfway and encourage the student to express how she/he is feeling, for he/she is often initially reluctant to talk, yet others' attention helps the student feel more worthwhile.
- tell student of your concern.
- say, "Don't worry," "Crying won't help," or "Everything will be better tomorrow."
- be afraid to ask whether the student is suicidal if you think he/she may be.
The Anxious Student
These students are highly anxious about the unknown and may perceive danger is everywhere. Uncertainty
about expectations and interpersonal conflicts are primary causes of anxiety. High and unreasonable self-
expectations increase anxiety also. These students often have trouble making decisions.
- let them discuss their feelings and thoughts. Often this alone relieves a great deal of pressure.
- reassure when appropriate.
- remain calm.
- be clear and explicit.
- make things more complicated.
- take responsibility for their emotional state.
- overwhelm with information or ideas.
The Demanding, Passive Student
Typically, the utmost time and energy given to these students is not enough; they often seek to
control your time and unconsciously believe the amount of time received is a reflection of their
- let them, as much as possible, make their own decisions.
- set limits on the time and energy you are willing to spend with the student.
- let them use you as their only source of support.
- get trapped into giving advice, "Why don't you, etc.?"
The Student In Poor Contact With Reality
These students have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, the dream from the waking state.
Their thinking is typically illogical, confused, disturbed; they may coin new words, see or hear things
which no one else can, have irrational beliefs, and exhibit bizarre or inappropriate behavior. Generally,
these students are not dangerous and are very scared, frightened and overwhelmed.
- respond with warmth and kindness, but with firm reasoning.
- remove extra stimulation of the environment and see them in a quiet atmosphere (if you are comfortable in doing so).
- acknowledge your concerns and state that you can see they need help, e.g., "It seems very hard for you to integrate all these things that are happening and I am concerned about you; I'd like to help."
- acknowledge the feelings or fears without supporting the misconceptions, e.g., "I understand you think they are trying to hurt you and I know how real it seems to you, but I don't hear the voices (see the devil, etc.)."
- reveal your difficulty in understanding them (when appropriate), e.g., "I'm sorry but I don't understand. Could you repeat that or say it in a different way?"
- focus on the "here and now." Switch topics and divert the focus from the irrational to the rational or the real.
- speak to their healthy side, which they have. It's O.K. to joke, laugh, or smile when appropriate.
- argue or try to convince them of the irrationality of their thinking, which may lead them to defend their position (false perceptions) more ardently.
- play along, e.g., "Oh yeah, I hear the voices (or see the devil)."
- encourage further revelations of craziness.
- demand, command, or order.
- expect customary emotional responses.
The Suspicious Student
Typically, these students complain about something other than their psychological difficulties. They
are tense, anxious, mistrustful, loners, and have few friends. They tend to interpret minor oversights as
significant personal rejection and often overreact to insignificant occurrences. They see themselves as
the focal point of everybody's behavior and everything that happens has special meaning to them. They are
overly concerned with fairness and being treated equally. Feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy
underline much of their behavior.
- express compassion without intimate friendship. Remember, suspicious students have trouble with closeness and warmth.
- be firm, steady, punctual, and consistent.
- be specific and clear regarding the standards of behavior you expect.
- be aware that humor may be interpreted as rejection.
- assure the student that you are his/her friend; agree you're a stranger, but even strangers can be concerned.
- be overly warm and nurturing.
- flatter or participate in their games; you don't know the rules.
- challenge or agree with any mistaken or illogical beliefs.
- be ambiguous.