Helping Students in Distress

If a student seems to be struggling:

  • TALK to the student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied. Privacy will help minimize embarrassment and defensiveness
  • LISTEN in a sensitive, nonthreatening way. Discuss your observations in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class lately and I’m concerned.”
  • COMMUNICATE understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you. Try to include both content and feelings (“It sounds like you’re not accustomed to such a big campus and overwhelmed.”) Let the student talk.
  • GIVE HOPE assure the student that help is available. Help the student identify options for action and explore the possible consequences.
  • MAINTAIN clear and consistent boundaries and expectations. Be frank with the student about the limits on your ability to help him or her
  • REFER when the problem is more serious than you feel comfortable handling and you have helped as much as you can and further assistance is needed.

Look for the following characteristics that can indicate that a student is struggling:

Marked changes in academic performance or behavior

  • Uncharacteristically poor performance and preparation
  • Excessive absences or tardiness
  • Repeated requests for special consideration especially when this represents a change from previous functioning
  • Avoiding or dominating discussions
  • Excessively anxious when called upon
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Intense emotion or inappropriate responses

Behavioral or interpersonal problems

  • Asking instructor for help with personal problems
  • Complaints from other students
  • Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
  • Tearfulness
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Problems with roommate or family
  • Change in personal hygiene or dress
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Disjointed thoughts

References to suicide, homicide, or death

  • Expressed thoughts of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Overt references to suicide
  • Isolation from friends or family
  • References to suicide or homicide in verbal statements or writing

Faculty and staff resources

Faculty and staff are in good positions to recognize students who are in distress. Counseling Services’ staff wants to support your efforts by providing this practical information about how to identify distressed students and to make referrals to Counseling Services or other crisis support services.

Seek emergency help immediately if a student is talking about direct harm to self or others or acting in a bizarre or disruptive manner. The following list of phone numbers represents local support options in case of an emergency.

Emergency phone numbers

  • Student Health Service (314) 362-3523
  • Protective Services (314) 362-4357 or 2-HELP

If you are having thoughts of suicide or feel suicidal, call for help immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.

  • Life Crisis – St Louis (314) 647-HELP (4357)
  • Text “help” to (314) 226-1147

Counseling services referrals

Non-crisis referrals

Encourage students to contact one of the Student Health Services psychologists on staff directly to schedule an appointment at (314) 362-2402. Offer to let the student call from your office.

Crisis referrals

If a student is in crisis during Counseling Services business hours (Monday-Friday 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.) call and ask to speak to one of the psychologists on staff at (314) 362-3523. If one of the clinicians is not immediately available, ask to speak to the nursing staff.

Provide the counselor with a description of the situation. The counselor will help you with appropriate actions to take. Appointments are usually available for students who need to be seen in an urgent matter.

If the student or another person is in imminent danger, or when you believe a student is out of control, call Protective Services on campus at (314) 362-4357 or 2-HELP.

It is often a good idea to follow up with students after the referral was made. Be aware that Counseling Services works within ethical limits of confidentiality and WE CANNOT give information about the student or specifics about the situation without written permission. We can answer your general questions about making referrals, offer you information about psychological concerns and problems in general, and take information from you about the student.