Distressed Students Guide

As a member of the faculty or staff here at Georgia Tech or as a family member of a student, you are constantly interacting with students. At times you may encounter students who are in crisis situations or who are under inordinate amounts of stress. You are more likely to see these students around mid-term and final exam periods.

 
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR?

There are also some clear signs that a person may need professional help. These include:

  • Moodiness: Feelings of helplessness, depression, social isolation and withdrawal. Suicidal thoughts may be indicated by some seemingly nonchalant statement like, "it just doesn't seem worth it anymore."
  • Problems with School: Poor classroom performance or erratic attendance. These may signal a deeper, non-academic problem, especially if it is inconsistent with the student's previous record.
  • Inability to Concentrate, Constant Worrying or Anxiety: Being easily distracted, fidgety, shaky; having memory distortions or lapses, having trouble sleeping.
  • Anti-Social Behavior: Verbal or physical aggression, being "out of control", difficulty communicating or relating to others, demanding so much of your time and attention that you feel uncomfortable or irritated.
  • Change in Physical Appearance, Mood or Behavior: These include sudden weight gain or loss, loss of interest in physical appearance or schoolwork, and mood changes, including a sudden lifting of depression.
  • Alcohol or Other Drug Abuse: Indications of excessive drinking, drug abuse or drug dependence.
  • Other Common Warning Signs of Student Distress

 

Academic Problems

  • Excessive procrastination
  • Uncharacteristically poor preparation or performance
  • Repeated requests for extensions or special considerations
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Career or course indecision
  • Excessive absence or tardiness
  • Avoiding or dominating discussions
  • References to suicide or homicide in verbal statements or writing

 

Interpersonal Problems

  • Asking instructor for help with personal problems
  • Dependency on advisor
  • Hanging around office
  • Avoidance of advisor
  • Disruptive Behavior
  • Inability to get along with others
  • Complaints from other students

 

Behavioral Problems

  • Change in personal hygiene
  • Dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Frequently falling asleep in class
  • Irritability
  • Unruly behavior
  • Impaired speech
  • Disjointed thoughts
  • Tearfulness
  • Intense emotion
  • Inappropriate responses
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physically harming self

 

If you have noticed any of these warning signs, you are faced with the decision of whether or not to intervene.  Although your faculty appointment is demanding, your interest in your student’s well-being can make an important difference to a person in distress.  If you decide to make an intervention, here are some suggestions:

 

  • Talk to the student privately to help minimize embarrassment and defensiveness.
  • It is helpful to use "I" statements rather than "you" statements.
  • Tell the student why you think counseling would be helpful and make it clear that this recommendation represents your best judgment based on the student's behavior.
  • Tell them a few facts about the Counseling Center. For instance, all services are free to enrolled students.
  • Avoid making promises to keep information shared confidential. 
  • Listen carefully to the student and respond to both the content and the emotion of the situation.
  • Discuss your observations and perceptions of the situation directly and honestly with the student.
  • Express your concern in a non-judgmental way.  Respect the student’s value system, even if you don’t agree with it.
  • Help the student identify options for action and explore the possible consequences.
  • Be frank with the student about the limits of your ability to help them and let them know that you can help them get to experts who can help them address their concerns.
  • If the student appears to be in imminent danger of hurting self or others, contact the counseling center or the campus police immediately.  Do not promise to keep threats to self or others secret.

 

If the student agrees to the referral you can offer to walk the student over to the Counseling Center to set up their Initial Consultation. Finally, you should follow up with the student at a later date to show your continued interest even if he/she did not accept your attempted referral.  In emergency situations involving students who are unwilling or unable to seek help on their own, you may call the Counseling Center, The Office of the Dean of Students, or the campus police.

 

How to make a referral

  • If the emergency occurs within Counseling Center business hours (Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. or Thursdays 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. ) call 894-2575 and ask to speak to a Counseling Center administrator or the therapist who is on duty for such calls. 
  • Provide the therapist with a description of the situation that has led to your concern.
  • The therapist will advise you of appropriate actions to take to most effectively help the student. 
  • If the emergency occurs outside of Counseling Center business hours, call 894-2575 and follow the prompts to contact the therapist who is staffing our crisis consultation line.  This is appropriate if the student or another person is in immediate danger, or when you believe the student is out of control.
  • For students who may need additional support, the Fulton County Mental Health Hotline number is (404) 730-1600. 

 

Non-Emergency Referrals

  • Speak to the student in a direct, concerned, straightforward manner.
  • Because many students initially resist the idea of counseling, be caring but firm in your judgment that counseling would be helpful. Also be clear about the reasons that you are concerned.
  • Encourage the student to contact the Counseling Center directly to schedule an initial appointment.
  • Offer to let the student call from your office if you believe they may need extra support and encouragement.
  • It might be helpful to share with the student that the Counseling Center is staffed by psychologists and counselors and that our services are free and confidential.
  • In some situations, you may find it wise to walk the student over to the Counseling Center.

 

What about the culturally different student?

The culturally different student may be: (a) the American student who is bicultural and sees him/herself as an ethnic minority, (b) the International student who is studying for a degree and may return to his/her home nation, or (c) the immigrant who is relatively new to the United States and remains culturally identified with his/her birth nationality. Students who are culturally different may feel isolated in the university setting. They often believe that they must handle personal problems on their own and may wait until their distress is acute before seeking assistance.

Because of cultural masking and our own inexperience and/or discomfort with people who are different, the initial assessment of distress is often difficult. For the most part, problems described in this brochure are also discernible in the culturally different population. However, difficulty in assessing emotional distress in the culturally different individual is compounded by differences in cultural norms of behavior, emotional expression, sense of privacy and personal discomfort with mainstream American culture. If you encounter a culturally different individual who may be experiencing distress, it is important to make some contact with him/her and express your concerns, just as you would with any other student. Although it would be helpful to be knowledgeable about the person's own culture, it is much better to reach out than to hold back for fear of violating cultural rules or boundaries. If the student does not accept your offer of help, you might want to suggest talking with someone else on campus, possibly someone who may be knowledgeable about the students' background. Remember to reach out to this person since he/she may find it difficult to seek assistance from you.

What to expect at The Counseling Center

 

The First Visit

Students can stop by The Counseling Center anytime during our business hours to fill out some brief paperwork, this will take about 20-30 minutes. At that time, they can schedule their first appointment with a counselor or psychologist to get the process of counseling started.  The first appointment is called an Initial Consultation and during this meeting, the counselor will help the student define the problem, take a thorough history, and help the student clarify goals for counseling.  The student and counselor then work together to decide on the most appropriate intervention based on their unique circumstances.

 

Confidentiality Guidelines

Once you have made a referral, it is normal to want to know what happened and how you can continue to help the student.  However, the staff at the Counseling Center are bound by the principles of confidentiality as defined by our disciplines and by federal and state laws.

 

That means:

  • We cannot give information about the student without written permission from the student.
  • With the student’s permission, we CAN let you know that s/he has come in for the appointment, however, due to confidentiality, we cannot discuss specifics of the student’s situation.
  • We CAN answer your general questions about making referrals to the Counseling Center.
  • We CAN offer you information about psychological concerns in general.
  • We CAN provide other referral ideas.
  • We CAN take information from you regarding specific behaviors of the student.

 

For more information, please see our page about Confidentiality.  Thank you for your concern for students and for being willing to go the extra mile when it is clear that one of our students is in distress.  The staff at the Counseling Center is glad to serve as a resource to you as you help students.
 

In the Aftermath of a Tragic Event on Campus

Unfortunately, tragic events occur on college campuses. These events often leave many students, faculty, staff, and members of the college or university community severely traumatized. When this happens, providing some time in a class setting for emotional debriefing can significantly aid and accelerate the healing process. The following guide to emotional debriefing in class was adapted from a similar guide written for the faculty at Texas A&M University following the Bonfire tragedy in November 1999. This guide was kindly shared by Professor Stan Carpenter from the Educational Administration Department at Texas A&M.

  • Provide time during class to discuss the incident and the students’ feelings about it. The students should be encouraged to express feelings in a supportive atmosphere as soon as possible. The professor might say, “I’m still (sad, shaken, upset) by the tragedy that happened on campus on Thursday. I’m glad to be with all of you again. How are each of you (feeling, doing, coping) with this?"
  • Give the students 30 seconds to a minute to say something. They may need a little time to get the courage to speak. If students do not speak, remind them of your office hours, your e-mail address, and/or your willingness to meet one-on-one. Emphasize that talking about the trauma is a good and healing thing to do. If you share some of your feelings, it will encourage them to talk. The minor loss of instructional time will be insignificant because if they are having serious emotional reactions their learning will be compromised.
  • It is also important to let them know that when events like this occur; our Counseling Center makes special arrangements to provide support to students who are affected by the situation. If they would like help or support, they should contact that Center as soon as possible.
  • Remember that everyone’s story is valid. Not everyone has to speak.
  • Emotional debriefing is not about establishing facts of the incident. It is about expression of feelings. Try to empathize with what students are feeling (Something like: "It must hurt a lot to remember that.")
  • If you are able to identify students who are most upset, a referral to the Counseling Center would be helpful. When speaking to students, try to do so in a calm relaxed way and don’t worry if you cry in front of them. That’s okay. When the students finish talking, you can offer them a moment of silence. Suggest that they close their eyes and breathe slowly and deeply three or four times. If you are worried about a particular student, approach her/him privately. If you are concerned about your own reactions to the situation, consider seeking help. Give us a call and we can chat with you about whether you should think about seeking help.
  • Some students who have had close involvement with the crisis may have very vivid perceptions regarding the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the event. It’s not uncommon for them to feel something is wrong with them because the memories of these sensory perceptions are so strong. You can reassure them that such feelings are not uncommon after a tragedy. You might ask “Others have reported similar perceptions and thoughts after such a tragedy.” Or, “It must have been so upsetting to (see, hear, feel, smell, taste) that.”
  • Some students feel very guilty. They may have been close enough to the situation or victims that they believe there is something they should have done to prevent the tragedy or harm to some of the victims. They may believe that they should have been there to help some of the victims. To address this, you might say “After a tragedy, people often second guess themselves, and they are not sure they did everything they could. That’s a natural feeling of wanting to help others. It does not reflect what was really possib
  • A future orientation is helpful. You might ask: “What are you worried about right now?”
  • When they speak about future concerns, you might be able to alleviate some of their worries with facts or other ideas and thoughts. Giving students a chance to share their worries reduces anxiety. You can say: “It’s really too early to know all the facts about what is going to happen. But you help yourself to deal with this tragedy. Many people find that talking with others, spending time with family, connecting with ministers, rabbis, or priests can hasten the healing process.”
  • After class, if students come to your office to speak in private, remember they are looking for someone who will validate their grief, not talk them out of it. Sitting quietly with them and letting them talk may be all that is needed. Share your own feelings about the tragedy. You might even tell them about other losses you’ve experienced if you’re comfortable with that. If you do talk about past losses, it is helpful to end by saying that for you there was a gradual improvement in hopefulness and mood as time passed. You can simply say that you hope they have the same experience of healing.

These suggestions were adapted from: Poland, S., & McCormick, J. S. (1999). Coping with a crisis: A resources for schools, parents, and communities. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.