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Faculty Help Page

The Role of Faculty with Students in Distress

Most students manage the many transitions they experience very well. However, there will always be a minority of students for whom the pressures seem unmanageable. Students who are overwhelmed and who do not have strong coping abilities/skills will not be able to leave their stressors and reactions to them outside the classroom. Their inability to do so is the reason why faculty may observe either changes in behavior or an on-going set of behaviors that point to distress. Since you as faculty are often the most consistent and primary contacts for students, your expressed interest and concern could make the difference of whether or not a student succeeds in college. Your role and responsibility is not to work individually with students who are experiencing emotional distress, but you can play an important role in getting the students the help they need. Students respect their professors and your concern for them and encouragement to access supports available to them can make a big difference in how open they are to doing so. The following Resource and Referral Guide offers you behaviors to look for in distressed students as well as how to help and when to refer students to counseling.

Faculty Resource and Referral Guide

Symptoms of Student Distress

  • Changes in affect and/or behavior over a period of time
  • Changes in class attendance and/or performance
  • Depressed mood
  • Crying in class
  • Angry outbursts
  • Isolation from peers
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Decline in personal hygiene
  • Coming to class high or intoxicated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Extreme activity level
  • Very rapid speech
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response which is inappropriate to situation
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech,disjointed thoughts)
  • Seeing/hearing things which are not there
  • Talking about suicide or not wanting to be around anymore

How/When to Help

  • Talk to the student and describe the specific behavior that concerns you
  • Avoid judging, evaluating, and criticizing the student
  • Recommend the student access support in the Center when you feel the student’s problem is one that you do not feel qualified to handle, that personality differences will interfer with your ability to help, the student is a personal acquaintance, or if you feel you are overwhelmed, pressed for time, or at a high stress level yourself.
  • Offer to make an initial call to the Center on behalf of the student
  • You may walk the student to the Center if your concern is urgent If you are unsure about what to do about a student, call the Counseling staff and consult about him or her. The Counseling and Psychological Service Center Located on the lower level of Alumnae Hall Monday – Friday 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. 674-6408 For Evening and Weekend Emergencies: Contact Safety & Security at 674-6300 for the Counselor-On-Call  

Emergency Situations Some of the behaviors listed on the Resource and Referral Guide are ones that indicate an immediate crisis and need immediate attention. They include:

  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, disjointed thoughts)
  • Seeing and/or hearing things that are not there or are not real
  • Talking or writing about suicide including plans and/or methods
  • Homicidal thoughts communicate either verbally and/or in writing
  • Highly disruptive behaviors (aggressive, hostile, violent threats/behavior)

What To Do

  • Stay calm. Try not to leave the student alone (unless he/she is violent). Find someone to stay with the student while calls for assistance are made.

1) Safety & Security Office at 674-6300
2) University Counseling Center at 674-6408
3) Student Health Center at 674-6276

What Can Students Expect When They Come to Counseling? You can help students feel less anxious about accessing counseling support if you know what they can expect when they come for services and can give them an idea when you refer them. Upon arrival in the Center, students will be greeted by our office manager, Carol Llewellyn. She will invite them to have a seat in our private waiting room and complete the intake paperwork that includes basic information about them and the reason for their coming for services. (They obviously would not have to do the paperwork in an emergency). This paperwork and all paperwork connected to them as clients are confidential and are kept in locked confidential files. Students should know that their files are separate from their school records. All services are free, confidential and private. We may only share information with others with a student’s written permission unless we are concerned about their safety or the safety of others. After students complete the paperwork, a counselor will come to the waiting room to meet them and walk them to his/her private office. The first session is called the intake session and the purpose of this session is to review the intake paperwork so the counselor can get a good sense of a student’s concerns and issues. The counselor will talk with the student about a plan for addressing these concerns and ask the student if he/she is willing to engage in the counseling process. If the counselor determines that the student’s issues are such that the student will need longer more intensive treatment that falls outside of our brief treatment model, we will offer the student some referrals for professionals in the local community. Otherwise, the counselor will schedule a follow-up appointment with the student.

What to Expect Once You Make a Referral to Counseling If you contact the Center for a crisis or emergency situation, we will respond immediately to you by talking with you about a student of concern over the phone and/or coming to the scene and talking with you and the student. Once the immediate crisis is resolved, and we continue to have contact with the student, we cannot talk with you about him/her due to strict laws of client confidentiality. Following a general referral (or an emergency referral) of a student by you, we can ask him/her to sign a release form to give permission to at least let you know that they followed through on your referral, but this option is their personal choice. Confidentiality laws do not preclude us from listening to any new concerns you may have after we begin to see the student but just know that we will be mostly listening since we cannot share details of our conversations with the student.

Disturbing Content in Students’ Work Disturbing content can be in various forms, such as in written content in class papers, emails, and art work. It can often include self-disclosure about abuse of self, others, or animals. It may also be in the form of threats or strange content that does not make sense. Writing may be of a dark and/or negative nature. Frequent use of profanity in writing can also indicate disturbed content. Art work may reflect traumatic events and/or violence. Students who exhibit disturbing content may or may not also exhibit strange and/or disruptive behavior in the classroom.

What to Do Seek consultation with your department chair or appropriate department supervisor and the Center before directly addressing the student. You can access a counselor by calling 674-6408 during normal working hours. If you believe the situation is an emergency and you cannot get through to this number, you can contact the counselor-on-call through the Office of Safety and Security at 674-6300. Together we can devise a plan for how to proceed and the counselor will decide if further steps, such as a mental health evaluation, need to take place.


Guide to Classroom Discussion Following a National or Local Tragedy* When a national or local tragedy occurs, everyone deals with these experiences in their own way, but generally people have a need to be together and talk about it to try to make sense of the event. Faculty often wonder whether or not they should say something to their students in the classroom or not, and if they do choose to say something, they wonder what to say. The following suggestions may help:

  • Stay with the student until help arrives.
  • If you choose not to have a class discussion that is fine, but DO acknowledge the event. Students will most likely have a hard time concentrating after a tragedy and may interpret the absence of acknowledgement as insensitivity to the event. This may cause anger in some students. You might also just mention support services such as counseling services and campus ministry are available for those who find themselves having a difficult time.  
    1. If you do wish to provide class discussion time:
      Acknowledge the event.
    2. Suggest that it may be helpful to share personal reactions students have.
    3.  Provide for a brief discussion of the “facts” and then shift to emotions. People are usually more comfortable talking with facts than feelings, so this approach allows an easier introduction to the topic.
    4.  Invite students to share their personal reactions/feelings about the event. Perhaps begin this part by sharing some of yours to break the ice.
    5.  If students begin debating about the “right way” to react, you might comment that how people react is highly unique and personal and that there is no “right way”.
    6. Often, in the midst of tragedy, people will look for someone to “blame”. This is a way of coping and trying to make sense of something that does not make sense. If the discussion gets stuck on “blaming”, you might say something like, “It is not unusual to focus somewhat on anger and blame. It might also be useful to talk about our fears”.
    7. Avoid trying to help students by trying to explain the meaning of the event. This is not your responsibility and would not be helpful. By their very nature, tragedies are especially difficult to explain.
    8. Thank your students for sharing their thoughts and feelings and remind them again of the support resources on campus available to them. Encourage them to use these resources should they need to talk further and/or one-on-one with someone.
      *This piece was adapted with permission by Joan Whitney, Ph.D., Director of Counseling Center at Villanova University. Faculty Resources and Bibliography
      The Day After:Faculty Behavior in Post 9/11 Classes.
      Teaching Times of Crisis
      Coping with Tragedies

      Huston, Therese A., and Michele DiPietro. "In the Eye of the Storm: Students' Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy." To Improve the Academy 21(2007): 206-224.

      Kardia, Diana, Crisca Bierwert, Constance E. Cook, A.T. Miller, and Matthew Kaplan. "Discussing the Unfathomable:Classroom-Based Responses to Tragedy." Change 34.1(2002):19-22

      Miller, Katherine. "The Experience of Emotion on the Workplace." Management Communication Quarterly 15.4(2002):57-600.

      Pavela, Gary. "Memorandum to Faculty: Teaching Troubled Students After Virginia Tech." Spectrum Nov.(2007): 4-9.

      Siegel, Dorothy. Campuses Respond to Vilent Tragedy. Phoenix, AZ: Oryz Press, 1994.