Responding to distressed students: How to help
Any member of Ramapo College community might come into contact with a distressed student. Being aware of distress signals, methods of intervention, and a source of help for the student can assure you are ready should that time come. Counselors at Counseling Services are available to faculty and staff for consultation. Feel free to call us at (201) 684-7522 if you would like to discuss any concerns with us. For after-hours consultation call Public Safety at (201) 684-6666 and ask to speak to the on-call counselor.
Things to keep in mind
Listed below are some of the common signs of someone in distress. This list is intended as a guideline for identifying unusual levels of distress, not as a diagnostic tool.
Classroom behavior warning signs:
- Failure to turn in work
- Persistent arguments or comments that seem irrelevant to the subject at hand
- Statements of past suicide attempts, or future suicidal plans
- Frequent absences
- Poor hygiene or change in personal care
- Announcement of a personal problem
- Appeal for help in personal matters
We all may feel depressed from time to time. A depressed mood may generate only one or two symptoms and usually passes within days. Clinically depressed students will exhibit multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms are loss of interest in pleasurable activities, depressed mood, crying, a decrease in functioning, sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, withdrawal from the usual pattern of social activity, poor hygiene, loss of self-esteem, or preoccupation with death.
Most people who attempt suicide communicate early messages about their distress. These messages can range from “I don’t want to be here,” to a series of vague “good-byes,” to “I’m going to kill myself.” Non-verbal messages could include giving away valued items, or putting legal, financial, and college affairs in order. All suicidal messages or behaviors should be taken seriously.
Chronic or Pronounced Anxiety
In some situations a student may be unable to relax or may exhibit signs of constant vigilance or compulsive behavior that they appear not to be able to control. A sign that this may be significant is if you become anxious as a consequence of being with the student.
Agitation or Acting Out
One of the features of this area is that there is an extraordinary departure from socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, restless, hyperactive, or antagonistic. A student may also demonstrate increased alcohol and/or drug use, inappropriate sexual behavior, or other risk taking behaviors.
Some distressed students may seem “out of it.” There may be a decrease in awareness of what is going on around them, a tendency to forget or lose things, misperception of facts or reality, rambling or disconnected speech, or behavior that seems out of context or bizarre.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Signs of intoxication during class or interaction with others are indicative of a problem that requires attention.
Violence and Aggression
Physically violent behavior, verbal threats, threatening e-mail or letters, harassment, stalking behavior, or papers/exams that contain violent or threatening material may indicate danger to others. It is better to be cautious about such behavior – and respond to it – then to overlook it while hoping “things will just blow over.”
While it is not expected that you be a “watchdog” or that you provide a thorough assessment, you may be the first one to notice a student’s distress and be in a position to ask a few questions. Following these guidelines can lead to a positive outcome for all parties.
Always keep safety in mind as you interact with a distressed student. Maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. If there appears to be an imminent danger to you or the student, call Campus Public Safety at 684-6666 or 911.
Distressed students can sometimes be easily provoked. Avoid threatening, humiliating, and intimidating responses. It is usually not a good idea to “pull rank” and assert authority unless you are certain of the student’s mental health status. Distressed students are in need of listening and support. Rules can be discussed at a later time.
Ask Direct Questions
Take a calm and matter-of-fact approach. Ask students directly if they are drunk, confused or if they have thoughts of harming themselves. You need not be afraid to ask these questions. You will not be “putting ideas in their heads” by doing so. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.
Do Not Assume You Are Being Manipulated
While it is true that some students appear distressed in order to get attention or relief from responsibility, only a thorough assessment can determine this. Attention-seekers can have serious problems and be in danger, too.
Know Your Limits
You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and/or referring them for further help. Some students, however, will need much more than you can provide. Be alert for any feelings of discomfort you may have and focus on getting them the assistance they require. You can do this by praising them for confiding in you, being accepting and nonjudgmental, trying to clarify what they see as the problem area, and indicating that seeking professional help is a positive and responsible thing to do. Some emotional signs you might experience that indicate you may have over-extended yourself include:
- Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
- Feeling angry at the student
- Feeling afraid
- Having thoughts of “adopting” or otherwise rescuing the student
- “Reliving” similar experiences of your own
If you identify any of the above reactions in yourself, it is especially important that you recruit help for yourself and/or seek consultation about the situation. Remember, Counseling Services is here to help! Come by D-216 or call (201) 684-7522.
If you are seeking help for situations of an emergent nature that occur during office hours, please be sure to inform the receptionist regarding the nature of your emergency, and we will do everything possible to see you immediately. For emergencies after hours, contact Campus Public Safety at (201) 684-6666 and ask to speak with the Emergency On-Call Counselor.