As a student yourself you are in a position to observe and recognize changes which signal psychological distress in other students. This is not to imply that we want you to be a “watch dog,” but rather students often seek out other students to share their distress, and you may become concerned with the behavior you have observed or heard about. Being able to identify students in distress, having some guidelines for dealing with distressed students, and being aware of appropriate referral resources that can assist you will allow you to be more in control of situations which may present themselves. Listed below is some basic information on the more common signs of psychological distress observed in college students.
- Depression. College can be a difficult experience, and it is not unusual for students to experience problems, the most common of which are related to depression. The symptoms of depression are: insomnia or change in sleep patterns, inability to concentrate, change in appetite, loss of ability to experience happiness or pleasure, apathy, sloppiness, crying, poor personal hygiene, feelings of worthlessness, no desire to socialize, loss of self esteem, and preoccupation with death. Having only one symptom is usually not enough to describe someone as severely depressed. However, when several of these symptoms occur for an extended period of time, a person may be experiencing a depressive episode.
- Unusual acting out. This would represent a change in behavior from normal socially appropriate behavior. It would include being repeatedly and excessively disruptive, overly antagonistic, or acting in a bizarre or peculiar manner. In some cases, alcohol or drug abuse may be involved.
- Suicidal ideation. The most seriously distressed student may consider doing harm to him or herself. Many suicide attempts are preceded by messages that the person is considering suicide. Verbal messages can range from “I wish I weren’t here,” to a very direct “I’m going to kill myself.” Some non-verbal signals include giving away valued possessions, and putting legal, financial, and University affairs in order, a
- preoccupation with death, withdrawal or boredom, a history of depression, and poor grooming habits. Each type of message about suicide should be taken seriously and may require immediate faculty or staff intervention.
- Other signs of distress. Again, the more symptoms observed, the more likely the individual is to be truly distressed. It is important to observe changes from a student’s previous behavior. These signs may include a drop in class attendance or a drop in quality of class work, a more generally tense or shad appearance, and the development of inappropriate or bizarre responses such as talking off-the-subject and rambling or laughing inappropriately.
Guidelines for Dealing with Students in Distress
Each person has his/her own style of approaching and responding to others. As such, there are no absolutely correct procedures for dealing with a distressed student. Nevertheless, listed below are some suggestions and guidelines for dealing with a student who is in distress.
- Talk to the student. Let the student know your concerns and ask if they are feeling distressed. Try to identify the problem area.
- Be accepting and non-judgmental. Help them determine what the problem might be without minimizing their feelings or judging them for feeling distressed.
- Reinforce the student for confiding in you. Acknowledge your recognition that they are hurting.
- Know your limits as a helper. While talking to the student you may find you are unable to provide adequate assistance or do not feel comfortable trying to help someone cope with his/her problem; that is, you sense that the person is in need of much more time than you can honestly give or requires much deeper exploration of the problem area. If this is the case, it is important that you indicate in a gentle but direct manner that professional assistance is the positive step which is needed to deal with the pain, and that you will assist them in finding competent professionals.
- Refer to appropriate resources. Don’t hesitate to contact these resources for consultation if you are not sure how to proceed. The Counseling Center can consult with you.
Guidelines for Dealing with a Student who is Suicidal
- If you are worried that a student may be considering suicide, it is alright to directly ask if he or she is thinking about killing him or herself. Professionals assess suicide potential, in part, by asking:What the plan for suicide is – exactly how will they do it?
- Do they have access to a means such as pills or a weapon?
- When and where they intend to carry out the plan?
- If they’ve ever attempted suicide before. If yes, how and when.
The more specific and lethal the plan, the more recent a previous attempt, and the greater the ability to carry out the plan, the higher the risk of a successful suicide. You need not be afraid to ask these questions. For people who are considering suicide, these questions will not furnish them with new ideas. Most people who are actively suicidal are more than willing to discuss their plan. Conversely, many people consider suicide from time to time in passing. The less specific and lethal the plan (e.g. “I guess I’d take a couple sleeping pills sometime.”), the less likely a suicide attempt. If you know the plan to be specific and lethal get help immediately for the student by contacting University Police at 9-1-1 or 437-8444.
Guidelines for Dealing with Students who are Potentially Dangerous
- Campus violence is a serious concern and as such needs to be taken seriously by anyone aware of a potentially violent situation. From time to time you may become aware of or develop a concern that a student may be dangerous to others. Some signals that a student is potentially dangerous include:
Physically violent behavior;
- Verbally threatening or overly aggressive behavior;
- Threatening e-mail or letters;
- Threatening or violent material on academic papers or exams;
- Harassment, including sexual harassment and stalking;