Guide for Faculty and Staff

How to Help Students in Emotional Distress

Faculty and university staff are often the first to recognize a student’s struggle. We hope this information will assist you in assessing difficult situations and offer you some specific ideas about what to do when faced with a troubled student. Situations may arise which are not addressed by these guidelines. We encourage you to contact us, at (415) 422-6352, if you would like a consultation about a specific situation.

Signs Indicating Students May Need Help

  • Increased irritability, aggressive or abusive behavior
  • Change 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
  • Preoccupied, unable to focus on class discussions/activities
  • Tendency to isolate self, shuns contact
  • Inability to perform complex tasks or follow instructions on assignments or examinations
  • Dependency, neediness
  • Inability to make decisions

Brené Brown on Empathy

Guidelines for Interaction

Whenever possible, speak directly to students 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 behaviors which cause you concern. 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helpful to note the magnitude and duration of these behaviors—e.g., “I’m concerned about you because you've been very withdrawn and uncommunicative in class for the past three weeks.”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 separate the student’s problem or viewpoint from your concerns. Students may define their problem as a family situation and you can be of help in suggesting resources through which the student might explore this issue. Yet, you may also be worried about the student’s disruptive behavior in class and would need to communicate those concerns clearly to the student, as well as, the possible consequences should the behavior persist.

Help vs. Enable

Individual students sometimes become involved in situations which require that faculty take a personal interest and depart from standard procedures in bringing the student back to productive learning. At times, benevolence may reinforce the student’s inappropriate behavior. It may be a crucial developmental experience for students to work with instructors who calmly but firmly expect and reward achievement rather than explanations.

Instructors, 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. At times, a referral is the best option.

Give 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 for you. I think it would be helpful for you to talk with a professional counselor.” Assure the student that 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 it would be to your benefit to be involved with professional counseling.” If the student reacts as though you are implying that they are “sick” or “crazy,” reassure the student that CAPS is used by many students who have difficulty adjusting to college.

CAPS Staff

Confidential and free counseling services are offered by licensed psychologists, doctoral level interns, and postdoctoral fellows. We provide crisis intervention and brief psychotherapy to currently enrolled students.