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Responding to Students Needing Assistance

How to Help Students in Distress

When should I be concerned about a student?

It is difficult to make a judgement about a student's personal issues or how he or she is coping. After all, students show a broad range of behaviors and coping skills. Taken alone, any one of the following indicators is not necessarily a sign of significant distress. However, a student exhibiting significant changes in their behavior or experiencing a number of these factors in combination may need assistance.

  • Academic indicators
    • Marked decline in academic work or work performance
    • Pattern of dropping classes and/or asking for extensions
    • Frequent absences from class
    • Difficulty concentrating or finding motivation
    • Academic work with themes of depression, hopelessness, social isolation and/or despair
  • Emotional or physical indicators
    • Depressed demeanor, isolation, or withdrawal
    • Marked changes in personal hygiene, weight, or reported changes in eating/sleeping habits
    • Lack of energy, listlessness or falling asleep in class
    • Noticeable anxiety or panic, irritability, or aggressiveness
    • Inappropriate responses to the situation
    • Significant or sudden changes in mood
  • Social or interpersonal factors
    • Lack of social skills
    • Sudden withdrawal from faculty, staff or peers
    • Friction with other students
    • Too frequent or too lengthy visits to your office

How do I approach a student who may need help?

Students experiencing distress may not recognize their level of difficulty or know where to turn for assistance. Even when they recognize their distress, seeking assistance is too frequently seen as a sign of weakness and therefore ignored. You may make the difference by approaching and engaging the student to express your concerns in a caring and nonjudgmental way. Consider these guidelines when you decide to approach a student.

  • Be discreet. Find a private and comfortable place to talk with the student in person.
  • Be honest about your concerns. Be yourself and share your concerns without criticism.  
  • Listen and ask open-ended questions. Some students will respond and some will not. But most will be relieved that you are showing an interest, trying to understand, and offering help.
  • Express acceptance, understanding and concern. Respond to what you hear without judgements.
  • Gently respond to resistance. Students will vary in their acceptance of your help for a variety of reasons. Some may feel shame or as if their issues are not important enough to trouble others. Others are concerned that receiving counseling will impact on their academic record or job prospects. You can help alleviate their fears by normalizing the need to reach out, reinforcing the benefit of seeking help and addressing confidentiality.
  • Assist them in identifying options and offer to help make the referral. Direct the student to Student Development or other campus resources when appropriate.  
  • Do not promise confidentiality. Certain situations, like threats or suicidal ideation, require professional intervention and make keeping confidences impossible.  
  • Don't expect immediate results. Your offer of assistance may even be rejected. In the large majority of instances, it is still the right thing to do. Continue to keep the conversation open. Changing and learning new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving takes time. Patience, understanding, and follow up on the part of concerned faculty and staff is part of the helping process.
  • Recognize your level of responsibility. You are not solely responsible for solving the student's problem nor are you responsible for counseling the student. You share responsibility for responding to the student's need for help and connecting the student with appropriate resources.