Top NavTop NavTop Nav

Helping Students in Distress

Any member of the Cal State East Bay community may come into contact with a distressed student. Being aware of distress signals, methods of intervention, and sources of help for the student can help you feel more in control of situations that may arise. The mental health professionals at Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) are available to faculty and staff for consultation regarding any CSUEB student in distress. Feel free to call us at 510-885-3690 if you would like to discuss these matters further.

Distress Signals

While it is impossible to list all of the “red flag” behaviors that a student may exhibit, here is a list of some common ones. It is important to notice any change in the student’s behavior. These are behaviors or symptoms that are different from how s/he acted in the past. It is not as important to know why the behaviors have changed or what these new behaviors mean, as much as your noticing that something is different and out of the ordinary.

  1. Withdrawn behavior - poor eye contact, isolation, leave-me-alone demeanor
  2. Poor hygiene - unkempt, disheveled attire
  3. Tearfulness in class
  4. Increased restlessness or agitation- cannot sit still, leaving class frequently
  5. Talking out of turn or making inappropriate, unrelated comments in class
  6. Rambling and disconnected thoughts - not following one train of thought
  7. Slurred or incoherent speech
  8. Increased disruptive or attention getting behavior - asking too many questions, “look at me” behaviors.
  9. Continued verbalizations or musings of helplessness or despairing content
  10. Written material that appear bizarre or illogical

Intervention Guidelines

Rest assured that you are not expected to be a mental health clinician or know how to diagnosis a student’s situation. What is important is that you notice that there has been a significant change in the student’s behavior. You may be the first person to bring his/her attention to this, which can be helpful. A concerned listener is usually helpful when one is distressed. Here are some things you can do when you address the student.

  1. Know your limits. Approaching a student without knowing much about him/her can be stressful. It is very important that you not expect yourself to do everything. Some-times simply acknowledging that you notice a change and making a suggestion to seek help is all that is needed. Some students may need more intervention than you can provide. If you feel too uncomfortable, feel free to call CaPS for consultation.

  2. Be safe. Be aware of how you feel about approaching the student. If you feel fearful or unsafe, follow your instincts and maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. Always keep your safety in mind. You might also ask another professor or staff member to be within listening range if necessary. If you feel that danger is imminent, call 911 or the University Police Department at 510-885-3791. (Please note: Students with mental health concerns are no more likely to be violent that those in the general population.)

  3. Talk with the student. Take a calm, respectful, and matter-of-fact approach. It is okay to ask students if they are in distress, under the influence of something, or feeling badly about themselves. Asking questions does not “put ideas in their heads” that they do not have. If anything, it allows them to share with someone. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.

    • “I noticed that you seem like you are having a hard time in class lately. Are you okay? Do you need someone to talk to?”
    • “I am concerned about your ___________(behavior) and wonder whether you might need some assistance or support.”
    • “Have you been feeling like you want to harm yourself?”

  4. Avoid escalation. Speak in a calm and respectful voice. Distressed students can easily interpret interventions as threatening. Do not take an authoritative stance. Avoid confrontation. You are here to listen, understand and help. Limits and expectations can come later, when trust and rapport is established.

  5. Do not assume that you are being manipulated. Unless you are absolutely sure, give the student the benefit of doubt for now. Disruptive students may be asking for your attention for a good reason. This may be the only way they know to ask for help.

Your awareness and caring for a student in distress can make a significant difference in his/her life. We often hear stories at counseling services about professors, administrators and staff who assisted students in getting the help they needed and deserved. Thanks for your part in helping students to be successful.

© California State University, East Bay. All Rights Reserved.