Guide for Faculty & Staff

Faculty and University staff are often the first to recognize a student’s struggle. We hope the information on this page will assist you in assessing difficult situations, knowing what you can do to help, and knowing when to refer a student to other resources. Situations may arise that are not addressed by these guidelines. We encourage you to contact CAPS at (415) 422-6352 if you would like a consultation about a specific situation. (See below for more information on consulting with CAPS and referring to CAPS.)

Additionally, supporting students in need can be stressful, and there are times when you will also need support. At the bottom of the page are some additional resources to give you guidance on how to help others and how to get support for yourself.

Signs Indicating a Student May Need Help

  • Increased irritability; aggressive or abusive behavior
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene
  • Excessive procrastination; poorly prepared work
  • Infrequent or erratic class attendance
  • Agitation
  • Impaired speech
  • Reactive mood; excessive emotionality
  • Change in participation
  • Appearance of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Lack of energy; falling asleep in class
  • Preoccupation; inability to focus on class discussion/activities
  • Tendency to isolate self; avoidance of contact
  • Inability to perform complex tasks or follow instructions on assignments or examinations
  • Dependency; neediness
  • Inability to make decisions

How to Help a Student in Emotional Distress

There are times when your support, advice, and guidance are all a student needs. The following video and information may help.

Brené Brown on Empathy

Guidelines for Interacting with students in distress

Whenever possible, speak directly to a student when you sense that they are in distress. Listen carefully; try to understand the issue from the student’s point of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing. When communicating your concerns to the student, focus on and describe any specific troubling behaviors you have observed. It is helpful to note the magnitude and duration of these behaviors; e.g., “I’m concerned about you because you've been very withdrawn and uncommunicative in class for the past three weeks.”

Attempt to distinguish your concerns from any explanation or issues the student may disclose. For example, a student who has been speaking disruptively in class may define their problem as a family situation, and you can be of help by listening with empathy and suggesting resources through which the student might address the family issue. Yet, as the student's professor, their disruptive behavior in class is still a concern, and you would need to clearly communicate that to the student, as well as any possible consequences should the behavior persist.

A student sometimes experiences situations that require faculty to take a personal interest and depart from standard procedures in helping the student get back to productive learning. However, there are times when benevolence may reinforce a student’s inappropriate behavior. It may be a crucial developmental experience for a student to work with instructors who calmly but firmly expect and reward achievement rather than explanations.

Know Your Limits

Faculty and staff hoping to help a troubled student may become more involved than time or resources permit. Extending oneself to others always involves risk. Be aware of your limits. It can be important for faculty to set boundaries when it comes to handling students' emotional disclosure. There are times, such as when a student is experiencing mental health or complex personal concerns, when a referral to CAPS would be useful.

Consultation with CAPS

If you have concerns about a student and need help assessing if you can help or whether other resources would be more appropriate and/or you wonder how best to approach the student, do not hesitate to call Counseling and Psychological Services at x6352 to discuss the situation. If no one is immediately available during business hours, please leave your name and number, and your call will be returned. On evenings, weekends, and holidays, you can call CAPS After Hours service at (415) 422-6352 (select menu option 2 to talk to a counselor). If you are on a branch campus, call CAPS All Hours at (855) 531-0761.

When a Student Needs Additional Help

Reporting Concerning Student Behavior

If you are concerned about a student and feel that they need additional assistance and resources and/or present a risk to others, you should report your concerns to the appropriate department. The Dean of Students Office is often a useful referral. Refer to the Dean of Students "Red Folder" web page for further information about reporting emergency and concerning non-emergency student issues.

Responding to Strange or Threatening Behavior

If a student is behaving in a strange manner, is agitated, or appears to be out of control:

  • Be matter of fact, and act in a calm manner.
  • Be respectful but firm. Set clear limits.
  • Be concrete and direct. You may have to repeat yourself in order to be understood.
  • Try to identify the problem and respond honestly about whether you can be of assistance.
  • Do not try to physically intervene if the student is acting out violently.

If you feel threatened by a student or are concerned about others' safety, please call USF Public Safety (x2911).

Referring Students to CAPS

At times, a referral to CAPS is the best option. This is particularly true if a student discloses to you that they are experiencing mental health or complex personal issues, or you suspect that a student's concerns are more serious or complex than you can address yourself.

In talking to the student, give them your reason for making the referral (e.g., “You and I have talked several times over the past three weeks, and it seems that things aren’t getting better; I think it would be helpful for you to talk with a professional counselor”). It may help to let the student know you are not abandoning them by making the referral (e.g., “I want you to know that I care about you, but I feel that a professional counselor could provide help that I'm not able to give”). If the student expresses concerns about not needing therapy or stigma around therapy, reassure them that CAPS is used by many students with a wide range of issues typical of college students.

With the student's consent, you can call CAPS (x6352) while the student is in your office to ensure that contact is made. You can also walk the student over to CAPS during business hours to help them make an appointment. It's helpful to us if you and/or the student can let us know if the student is currently in crisis and needs to be seen urgently, or if they just need help and support in making a non-urgent appointment with CAPS.

Crisis Situations

If the student is experiencing a current psychological crisis, they will be seen at CAPS during business hours the same day (typically within an hour or two, depending on counselor availability). Please call ahead to alert us in the event that you are referring a student in crisis to CAPS.

A student who is in crisis after business hours can call CAPS' After Hours service at (415) 422-6352 and select option 2 to talk to a professional counselor by phone.

Non-Crisis Situations

Confidential and free short-term counseling services are offered through CAPS by licensed psychologists, doctoral-level interns, and postdoctoral fellows. We provide crisis intervention and a variety of time-limited mental health services to currently enrolled students. We also consult with staff, faculty, family, and friends about USF students of concern. When CAPS is not able to provide a service that a student may need, we provide referrals to other on-campus and/or off-campus resources.

Client Confidentiality

Communication between CAPS counselors and clients is confidential. We cannot discuss whether counseling is being received or the details of a student's situation without their written consent. If you wish to have notification of a student's attendance of counseling, please discuss this with the student prior to their coming to CAPS; if the student is willing, they will sign a release form allowing CAPS to contact you and/or other relevant parties.

Outreach to Students in Need of Help

Unless there is an emergency, CAPS will not reach out to a student to offer an appointment; students must be proactive in contacting CAPS themselves if they need non-emergency services. If you believe a student would benefit from coming to CAPS, but the student expresses hesitation about doing so, you can express your opinion that CAPS may be helpful and give the student information about how to contact CAPS in the future.

The Office of the Dean of Students can reach out to students of concern when appropriate and encourage them to make an appointment with one of their staff and/or with CAPS. (As noted above, refer to the Dean of Students "Red Folder" web page for further information about reporting students of concern.)

Additional Resources