Guidelines for dealing with distressed students
There are no absolutely correct procedures
for dealing with a distressed student. Each person has his or her own style of
approaching and responding to others. Furthermore, people have differing capacities
to deal with others’ problems. It is important to know your personal limits
as a helper.
If you choose to try to help a distressed student, or if a student approaches
you to talk about personal problems:
- Request to see the student in private.
- Speak directly and honestly to a student when you sense that he/she is in
academic and/or personal distress.
- Ask if the student is talking to anyone, such as family and friends, about
the problem. People tend to isolate themselves when in distress, but this is
rarely a useful stance.
- If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, non judgmental
terms. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class
lately and I’m concerned,” rather than “Where have you been
lately? You should be more concerned about your grades.”
- Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Communicate
understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you.
- Try to include both content and feeling. (“It sounds like you’re
not accustomed to this much work in so short a period of time and you’re
worried about failing.”)
- Avoid judging, evaluating and criticizing, even if the student asks your
opinion. It is important to respect the student’s value system, even if
you don’t agree with it.
- Behavior that is strange or inappropriate should not be ignored. Comment
directly on what you have observed.
- Do not discuss your concerns with other students.
NOTE: Any reference to a personal consideration,
threat or attempt of suicide, (especially if the reference includes the how,
when, where, or why or suicide plans) is extremely serious. Immediate referral
If you are concerned about a student’s suicide potential, keep in mind
that mental health professionals assess suicide potential, in part, by asking
if the student has a plan for exactly how he/she would act on these thoughts,
when and where the student intends to carry out the plan, and if he/she has ever
attempted suicide before. The more specific and lethal the plan, the fact of
having made a previous attempt, and the greater the ability to carry out the
plan, the higher the risk that a suicide will occur. You need not be afraid to
ask these questions.
For people who are considering suicide, these questions will not furnish them
with new ideas. Most people who are actively suicidal are willing to answer these
questions. Conversely, many people consider suicide from time to time in passing.
The less specific and lethal the plan, (e.g., “I guess I’d take a
couple sleeping pills sometime,”) the less likely a suicide attempt, although
one should not dismiss references to seemingly non-lethal means of attempting