Helping Students Face Emotional Difficulties
Faculty and staff are usually the first people to identify students who may be encountering emotional difficulties. You play an extremely important role in referring students for help because, as a person they see often and respect, you may be able to make them more willing to accept a referral. Your expression of interest and concern can persuade these students to take advantage of the resources available on campus and in the community.
On this site we provide information that can help you if you encounter students who are facing emotional difficulties. Feel free to contact the Counseling Center at (516) 876-3053 if you have other questions or need additional assistance.
Students in Distress
Recognizing Students in Distress
At one time or another, everyone experiences unhappiness or depression. The “blues” are common and usually don’t last long, but certain patterns of behavior over a period of time can indicate something is wrong and professional help may be needed.
Sometimes students, even those in significant distress, are reluctant or unable to acknowledge a need for help. Behaviors that may indicate severe distress include:
- A change from consistently good grades to unaccountably poor performance, or serious problems with grades
- Excessive absences; this is especially true if the student has previously demonstrated good attendance
- Markedly changed or unusual patterns of interaction with classmates or instructor, such as completely dominating a discussion, or avoiding any discussion whatsoever
- Repeated requests for special consideration such as deadline extensions, especially if the student seems uncomfortable or highly emotional disclosing the reasons for the request
- Behavior, new or regularly occurring, that is vastly out of place and interferes with the effective management of the classroom
- Unusual or exaggerated emotional response that is inappropriate to the situation, such as needing to leave the room upon presentation of certain material
- Other signs of emotional distress may include depressed or lethargic behavior patterns, excessive activity or talking (rapid, pressured speech), red or swollen eyes, marked change in dress or personal hygiene, sweating when the room isn’t hot, or falling asleep in class
The Disruptive Student
Although it’s fairly rare, some students are so disturbed they become disruptive in class. Many faculty members make efforts to contain the situation and deal with it directly by speaking with the student after class about his or her behavior. If this happens, the student may reveal personal problems and a referral to the Counseling Center can be made. Often, however, the first effort may not get results. Calling the Counseling Center for a consultation might prove to be helpful. Together, we can develop a strategy to deal with the disruptive behavior and get the student some help if possible. Discussing the disruptive student with your department chair or dean could also prove helpful. In the case of a dangerous or threatening student, call the University Police at 516-876-3333. Some behaviors that indicate that a student may be in crisis and need emergency attention include:
- Highly disruptive behaviors, hostility, aggressiveness, violence, etc.
- Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech; unconnected or disjointed thoughts)
- Loss of contact with reality. For example, seeing or hearing things that aren’t there, or beliefs or actions that are greatly at odds with reality or probability
- Suicidal thoughts that are immediate, including plans and/or methods
- Homicidal thoughts
What you can do in an emergency
Crises are the easiest form of student distress to identify and, in some ways, the easiest to handle. Assistance and emergency referral procedures are outlined here for your convenience:
- Stay calm. Try not to leave the student alone. Find someone to stay with him or her while calls are made to helping resources.
- If a student directly threatens himself, herself or someone else, or otherwise behaves bizarrely, attention is needed immediately. Call:
- University Police at 516-876-3333
- Counseling Services at 516-876-3053 (call the University Police to reach a counselor if it is after 5 p.m.). During times of social distancing, please reach the counseling center by sending an email to: email@example.com.
- Stay with the student, or have someone stay with the student, until help arrives.
Helping the Distressed Student Not Needing Emergency Assistance
Some crises or overwhelming situations aren’t as obvious, yet, you may know something needs to be done. We hope the information in this section will help you deal with those less clear-cut situations.
You have a variety of choices for dealing with behavior that indicates to you that a student may be troubled, but isn’t in crisis. You may choose to ignore it; handle it in a “strictly business” way, that is, only with respect to the classroom; or you may handle it more personally. Calling the Counseling Center may be helpful in deciding which course of action you would like to take.
If you decide to approach the student or the student approaches you directly and you decide to handle the problem personally:
- Give the student your undivided attention by discussing the matter privately. Just a few minutes of effective listening by faculty can make a big difference in a student's perception of a problem, and often of college.
- Express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental terms. For example, "I’ve noticed you’ve had some absences lately, and I’m concerned."
- Let the student talk. Try to communicate to the student that you’ve listened to what was said. Try to repeat back or paraphrase the gist of the conversation.
- Help the student clarify advantages and disadvantages of various courses of action for handling the problem.
- Avoid judgments, evaluations and criticisms, as these may make the student less inclined to talk with you. Even if you don’t agree with the student’s value system, try to respect it. It’s important to identify your opinions clearly as yours, not what you think the student should think.
- Campus Assessment and Care Team is also a good resource to discuss situation with if you have concerns about a student’s behavior, wellbeing or safety and the safety o f the campus community.
Making a Referral to the Counseling Center
When students come to you in distress, you do not need to handle that problem alone. Often, it can be helpful to make a referral to Counseling Services.
Some students will accept a referral for help more readily than others. How you make the referral can make all the difference in whether it’s accepted and how the student perceives your need to make it.
Be frank with the student about your limitations and ability to help. Most will understand that you don't have the time or training, or simply that this isn’t what your job is. It means a lot to them, though, that you care enough to try to help them. You can also be invaluable in dispelling some of the stereotypes that surround the idea of counseling.
Students may feel they have to be severely disturbed or, at the very least, know exactly what is wrong with them to seek counseling. It can be very comforting for them to know that many students seek counseling, and that often they do so because they’re confused about what they’re feeling or thinking.
There are 3 ways you can make a referral to Counseling Services:
- You can tell students about the Counseling Center. This tends to be least likely to succeed, as the student may procrastinate in following up on the information.
- You can invite the student to call the counseling center to make an appointment while they’re still with you. If there is no answer on the phone, please have the student email the counseling center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- You can come to the Counseling Center with the student, while he or she sets up the appointment. This tends to be the most successful type of referral, in which the student is most likely to follow up.
What happens when you refer a student to the Counseling Center
If you contact the Counseling Center in a crisis situation, someone will talk with you immediately. We may come to the scene or we may determine that the University Police should respond as soon as possible. From that point on, the situation is handled exclusively by counseling staff or the University Police. Once students have dealt with us, we consider them clients and we are bound by confidentiality regarding our conversations with them. With their written permission, we may fill you in on limited details.
Students often feel better when they find that counseling is voluntary. The Counseling Center doesn’t accept “mandated” referrals for counseling.