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 or friends, about the problem. People tend isolate themselves when in distress but this is rarely a useful stance.
  • If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental 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.

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 suicide.

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