Helping Students in Distress
As faculty, staff or teaching assistant, you will likely encounter students in distress. Your role as a potential helper is not only valuable, it could be crucial. In many cases, you will be able to respond effectively to student needs; however, 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 (SCC), Reboot Center and Student Disability 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 (e.g., 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
- 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 (i.e., 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 (e.g., talking to “invisible” people)
- Emotions (e.g., fearful, tearful or nervous) displayed to an extreme degree or for prolonged periods
Guidelines for Interacting
- Talk with the student privately
- Listen carefully
- Show concern and interest
- Paraphrase or summarize to clarify
- Avoid criticizing or judging
- Consider the SCC as a resource and discuss referral with the student
- If the student declines help and you are worried, contact the SCC to discuss your concerns with a counselor
- Involve yourself only to the extent you feel comfortable; extending yourself can be a gratifying when within your range of comfort
- Suggest the student schedule an appointment for counseling. Provide the phone number, URL and location for the SCC to the student (320 Student Union, 405-744-5472).
- You may also call the SCC while the student is in your office and then hand the phone to the student to schedule an appointment
- In an emergency, follow the above procedure, but tell the receptionist you have a student with you that needs an “emergency appointment.” Except on rare occasions, the student may be seen shortly after your call
- Sometimes it may be useful or necessary to walk a student to the SCC or another campus referral agency
- Follow-up with the student by inquiring whether s/he kept the appointment and how the session went
Sessions with SCC 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.
- Answer questions about how to refer students to the Student Counseling Center
- Offer information about psychological issues in general
- 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.
Reasons for Referral Failure
Upon occasion, despite good intentions and accurate knowledge of resources, referral for counseling is not successful. Before you judge yourself, the student or a referral source too harshly, consider the following possibilities.
- The student might not have been ready for help.
- There may have been a 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.
- 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 SCC offers a free Walk-in Clinic (no appointment needed) Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., where students can meet with a counselor for a brief consultation session. The walk-in counselor will make treatment recommendations including referral to campus resources or counseling services. An on-call counselor is also available to meet with students or consult with faculty and staff. In addition, a counselor is on-call after hours and can be reached through the OSU Police (405-744-6523). The SCC offers the following services.
- Crisis intervention
- Walk-in clinic
- Psychiatric consultation
- Short-term individual counseling
- Group counseling
Academic & Administrative
- Counseling centers at OSU
- Behavioral Consultation Team (BCT) (HOTLINE--M-F, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., 405-744-3333)
Stillwater Food Pantries and Assistance
- Central Oklahoma Community Action Agency
- Our Daily Bread Food and Resource Center
- Oklahoma Food Pantries
320 Student Union
Stillwater, OK 74078
Open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Walk-in Counseling is available Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.
If you are a student with an urgent need, an on-call counselor is available. Examples of urgent needs include thoughts of harming yourself, thoughts of harming others, recent sexual assault or a recent traumatic experience. After 5 p.m. weekdays and weekends, counseling staff may be reached by contacting the OSU Police, 405-744-6523.
Links to websites outside of OSU do not imply endorsement of products or services on those sites. University Counseling Services and Oklahoma State University are not responsible for content on non-OSU sites.