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Helping Students in Distress

At OSU, you may encounter students in distress. Your role as a potential helper is not only valuable, it could be crucial. There might be occasions you want to refer a student to someone else for assistance.


This resource is offered to help you recognize signs of student distress and offer a framework for effective interventions; however, each student presents a unique situation. If you are concerned about a student’s behavior and/or health, it is always wise to seek professional consultation.


The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, Student Counseling Center, Reboot Center and Student Accessibility Services are prepared to respond to questions, should you need help assisting a student or making a referral. 

Signs and Symptoms of Distress

  • Excessive procrastination or very poorly prepared work, especially if inconsistent with previous work
  • Dependency (a student who hangs around your office or makes excessive appointments)
  • Listless, low energy or falling asleep in class
  • Poor attendance in class or at work
  • Marked changes in hygiene, appearance or behavior
  • Isolation
  • Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions or examination deferrals
  • Impaired or garbled speech; disjointed thoughts
  • Threat of harming self or others
  • Behavior that regularly interferes with the decorum or effective management of class
  • Overtly suicidal statements (referring to suicide or self-harm as a current option)
  • High levels of irritability
  • Inability to make decisions, despite repeated attempts to clarify and encourage
  • Apparent alcohol or substance abuse
  • Dramatic weight loss or weight gain
  • Bizarre or strange behavior obviously inappropriate to the situation (talking to “invisible” people)
  • Emotions (fearful, tearful or nervous) displayed to an extreme degree or for prolonged periods


What to do if you encounter a student in distress:

  • How should I interact with them?

    If a student is in distress, talk with the student privately about your concerns. Listen carefully to the student and show interest. Paraphrase or summarize what they tell you to clarify what they said. Avoid criticizing or judging the student. Discuss the Student Counseling Center with the student.


    If the student declines help and you are worried, contact the Student Counseling Center to discuss your concerns with a counselor as soon as possible. 

  • How do I refer a student to get help?

    Suggest the student schedule an appointment with the Student Counseling Center or utilize the Walk-in Clinic. If the student wants more support, you may contact  the Student Counseling Center via phone or in person with the student to schedule an appointment. Be sure to follow up with the student by inquiring whether they attended the appointment and how they felt the session went.


    In an emergency, you can contact the Student Counseling Center and ask for an emergency appointment for the student. The student may be seen shortly after your call.

  • What is the confidentiality policy?

    Sessions with Student Counseling Center staff are confidential. If you are interested in the progress of a student you referred, our ability to share information is governed by confidentiality laws and ethical guidelines.

    We can:

    • Answer questions about how to refer students to the Student Counseling Center
    • Offer information about psychological issues in general

    We cannot:

    • Discuss content of counseling sessions
    • Say whether a student is being seen or kept an appointment
    • Discuss treatment plans or progress

    In some cases, a student may find it in their best interest for a counselor to share information with a faculty, staff, family member or significant other. Disclosing counseling-related information can occur with a student’s written authorization that includes a clear explanation of the purpose and content of the disclosure. An exceptional circumstance where confidentiality would not be recognized would be a counselor’s determination of imminent danger to the student or others.

  • What is referral failure and what causes it?

    Referral failure is when the referral of a student to resources is unsuccessful. For example, if a student is referred to the Student Counseling Center and they don't schedule an appointment, miss a scheduled appointment, etc. Referral failure occurs for many reasons.


    The following is a list of potential reasons for referral failure:

    • The student might not have been ready for help.
    • Disparity between the student’s expectations and services provided by the referral source.
    • The referral source might not have been appropriate.
    • The referral source might not have understood the student’s needs. 
  • How should I follow up with the student?
    • If a referral proves unsuccessful, continue to be receptive to the student, try to determine the reason for the unsuccessful referral and explore other options.
    • Try to further clarify the student’s needs and expectations to assess appropriateness of the initial referral and refer again.
    • If it seems the referral source didn't fully understand the student's concerns, you may contact the referral source directly, with the student's permission, to offer information.
    • If incompatibility seems to be a problem, encourage the student to try another counselor or service. If you feel comfortable, provide the name of a specific individual for referral.
    • If lack of readiness appears to be a problem, accept the student’s feelings. Communicate limitations and encourage consideration of other options (under different circumstances, the student might be more receptive). 

More about Student Counseling Center Services

The Student Counseling Center offers a free Walk-in Clinic where students can meet with a counselor for a brief consultation session without an appointment. The counselor will make treatment recommendations including referral to campus resources or counseling services.


An on-call counselor is available during regular business hours. Examples of urgent needs include thoughts of harming yourself or others, sexual assault or other traumatic experience.


After 5 p.m. weekdays, weekends and holidays, a counselor may be reached by contacting the OSU Police, 405-744-6523. You can also find a full list of emergency contacts here.




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