The counseling center understands that students experiencing varying levels of distress may turn to faculty and staff for help for help due to their position, status and visibility on campus.
Consequently, faculty and staff may find themselves confronted with a disturbed or disturbing student who needs assistance.
This information was compiled to help you when these difficult occasions occur. It offers straightforward advice, techniques and suggestions on how to cope with, intervene, and assist troubled and/or difficult students in or out of the classroom.
Responding to Distressed Students (Whittier College Guidelines)
As a faculty or staff member interacting daily with students, you are in an excellent position to recognize behavior changes that characterize the emotionally troubled student. A student's behavior, especially if it is inconsistent with your previous observations, could well constitute an inarticulate "cry for help." Download Guidelines.
Guidelines for Intervention
Openly acknowledging to students that you are aware of their distress, sincerely concerned about their welfare, and willing to help them explore their alternatives, can have a profound positive effect. We encourage you, whenever possible, to speak directly and honestly to a student when you sense that he/she is in academic and/or personal distress.
1. Request to see the student in private. This may help minimize embarrassment and defensiveness.
2. Briefly acknowledge your observations and perceptions of their situation. Express your concerns directly and honestly.
3. Listen carefully and try to see the issues from the students' point of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.
4. Attempt to identify the problem. You can help by exploring alternatives to deal with the concern.
5. Inappropriate and strange behavior should not be ignored. Comment on what you have observed, but not in a judgmental way.
6. Flexibility with strict procedures may allow an alienated student to respond more effectively to your concerns.
7. Provide immediate help, but then contact the counseling center for support and continuation of care for student.
Consultation and Referral
Counseling Center Location: Haverhill A (Next to Campus Safety)
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A counselor is on call evenings and weekends and reachable by first calling Campus Safety at 562.907.4211
If you are unsure of how to handle a specific student, we encourage you to consult with the director of counseling services by calling 562.907.4239. Identify yourself to the receptionist and state that you need a consultation. If the director is not immediately available, let the receptionist know if it is an emergency. If it is not, the director will return your call as soon as possible. A brief consultation may help you to sort out the relevant issues and explore alternative approaches. Conveying your concern and willingness to help in any way you can (including referral) is probably the most important thing you can do. Your support, encouragement, and reassurance will be particularly valuable.
When you do discuss a referral to the counseling center, it would be helpful for the student to hear in a clear and concise manner your concerns and why you think counseling would be helpful. Also, having the student call for an appointment increases her/his responsibility and commitment to come in for counseling. However, there may be times when it is more advantageous for you to make the phone call, with the student in your office, to facilitate this process. We will ask the student to get on the line to affirm the best day and time for an appointment. You may even want to accompany the student to the counseling center for an immediate appointment. If you do, please call to let us know you are on your way.
Urgent concerns that usually require immediate intervention are:
- Suicidal/Homicidal thoughts and actions
- Fear of losing control and possibly harming/hurting someone
- Sexual assault
- Physical assault
- Recent death of a friend or family member
All discussions are held confidential, by law, except when the student presents a danger to him or herself or others, or when certain kinds of abuse are involved. All Services are FREE to currently enrolled Whittier College students. Our individual counseling services are designed for students who can benefit from short term, problem-focused counseling. If long term therapy is indicated, the student may be referred to an appropriate off campus resource. Referrals are also made if psychiatric services (e.g., medications) are required.
Please know that if you have referred a student to counseling services, we cannot, by law, consult with you about their attendance or the content of their conversations with us, unless the student (client) signs a written consent for us to do so. We will always suggest that you follow up with the student directly, to learn whether the student came to the counseling center and whether the student found it helpful to do so.
The Depressed Student
Depression, and the variety of ways it manifests itself is part of a natural emotional and physical response to life's ups and downs. With the busy and demanding life of a college student, it is safe to assume that most students will experience periods of reactive (or situational) depression in their college careers.
It is when the depressive symptoms become so extreme or are so enduring that they begin to interfere with the student's ability to function in school, work, or social environment, that the student will come to your attention and be in need of assistance.
Look for a pattern of these indicators:
- Tearfulness/general emotionality
- Markedly diminished performance
- Infrequent class attendance
- Lack of energy/motivation
- Increased anxiety (generalized, test, performance)
- Deterioration in personal hygiene
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Alcohol or drug use
- Let the student know you're aware she/he is feeling down and you would like to help
- Reach out more than halfway and encourage the student to discuss how she/he is feeling
- Refer the student to the counseling center
- Ask whether the student is suicidal. If you think she/he may be, call the counseling center or Campus Safety immediately. Stay with student until help arrives.
- Minimize the student's feelings (everything will be better tomorrow)
- Bombard the student with "fix it" solutions or advice
- Ignore signs that the student may be thinking of suicide.
The Suicidal Student
Suicidal thinking is common. In a typical year, 80 percent of the students who come to the counseling center indicate "feeling depressed or unhappy;" 12 percent indicate "thinking of killing myself;" and 25 percent present some degree of suicide concern.
It is important to view all suicidal comments as serious. Watching for some of the following behaviors will also give you clues to what's going on with a student. If several of these are true, refer the student to the counseling center for assessment.
- Severe changes in sleeping or eating behaviors
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Not attending class
- Expressing hopelessness, guilt, or a fascination with death
- Sudden mood or behavior changes
- Giving possessions away
- Expressing that life isn't worth the trouble
- Ask about suicide openly and directly
- Be confident, caring, and know the resources available
- Take charge and bring the student to the counseling center
- After hours, call Campus Safety for assistance in monitoring the student, and in contacting the counselor on call
- Get overly involved with the student, without obtaining consultation
- Ignore comments like, "I won't be a problem much longer" or "nothing matters; it's no use"
- Be too busy to intervene
The Violent an Verbally Aggressive Student
Violence is defined as "to use force so as to injure or damage; roughness in action; to outrage, to force, to injure..." Violence, because of emotional distress, is rare and typically occurs when the student's level of frustration has been so intense or of such an enduring nature as to erode all of the student's emotional controls. This behavior is often associated with the use of alcohol and other drugs.
- Remain calm.
- Stay safe (have access to a door, keep furniture/desk between you and the student).
- Get help if necessary (send a someone for other staff/faculty/dean/public safety officer).
- Do not threaten, corner, or touch the student.
Aggression is defined as "to attack, to go to, to commit the first act of hostility or offense...to assault first or to invade..." Students usually become verbally aggressive in frustrating situations they perceive as being beyond their control. Anger and upset become displaced from those situations onto the nearest target (YOU). Explosive outbursts or ongoing belligerent, hostile behavior become the student's way of gaining power and control. It is important to remember that, for the most part, the student is not angry at you.
- Acknowledge their anger and frustration (e.g., "I hear how angry you are.")
- Reduce stimulation; invite the person to a quiet place, if this is comfortable (remember not to let yourself be physically trapped)
- Be directive and firm about behaviors you will accept (e.g., "I need for you to step back," "I'm having a hard time listening to you when you yell.")
- Allow them to ventilate, get the feelings out, and tell you what is upsetting them
- Ignore warning signs (body language, clenched fists)
- Get into an argument or shouting match
- Become hostile or punitive yourself (e.g., "You can't talk to me that way.")
- Press for explanations for their behavior
- Make threats or dares
The Student in Poor Contact With Reality
These students have difficulty distinguishing "fantasy" from reality. Their thinking is typically illogical, confused or irrational (e.g., speech patterns that jump from one topic to another with no meaningful connection); their emotional responses may be incongruent or inappropriate; and their behavior may be bizarre and disturbing.
These students may experience hallucinations, often auditory, and may report hearing voices (e.g., someone is trying to harm/control them). While these students may elicit alarm of fear from other, they generally are not dangerous our violent. Consult with or refer to the counseling center as soon as possible.
- Respond with warmth and kindness.
- Remove extra stimulation from the environment (turn off the radio, step outside a noisy room)
- Acknowledge your concerns and verbalize their need for help
- Acknowledge their feelings or fears without supporting the misperceptions (e.g., "I understand you think someone is following you, and it must seem real to you, but I don't see anyone and I believe you are safe.")
- Seek consultation or refer to counseling center
- Argue or try to convince them of the irrationality of their thinking as this commonly produces a stronger defense of the false perception
- Play along! (e.g., "Oh, yes, I hear voices, see the devil, etc. . .")
- Encourage further discussion of the delusional processes
- Demand, command, or order them to do something to change their perceptions
The Anxious Student
Anxiety is a normal response to a perceived danger or threat to one's well being. For some students, the cause of their anxiety will be clear; but for others it is difficult to pinpoint the reason for distress. Regardless of the cause, one or more of the following symptoms may be experienced: rapid heart beat, chest pain or discomfort, dizziness, sweating, trembling or shaking, and cold, clammy hands. The student may also complain of difficulty concentrating, always being "on edge," having difficulty making decisions, sleeping problems or being too fearful to take action. In rarer cases, a student may experience a panic attack in which the physical symptoms occur spontaneously and intensely in such a way that the student may fear she/he is dying.
- Let them discuss their feelings and thoughts. Often this alone relieves a great deal of pressure
- Provide reassurance
- Talk slowly and remain calm
- Be clear and directive
- Refer to counseling center
- Minimize the perceived threat to which the student is reacting
- Take responsibility for their emotional state
- Overwhelm them with information or ideas to "fix" their condition
- Become anxious or overwhelmed by the student's problems
The Student Under the Influence
Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug. In addition to being the preferred drug on college campuses, it is common to find students who abuse alcohol also abusing other drugs, both prescription and elicit. Nationally, 43 percent of college students engage in binge drinking, defined as five drinks in a row (four for women.) Consuming alcohol in large quantities quickly can be lethal. Other adverse effects include: hangovers, hospitalization for alcohol overdose, poor academic performance, missing classes, injury, and unprotected sexual activity.
Student alcohol abuse is most often identified by faculty when irresponsible, unpredictable behavior affects the learning environment (e.g., drunk and disorderly conduct in class) or when a combination of the health and social impairments associated with alcohol abuse sabotages student performance. Because of the denial that exists in most substance abusers, it is important to express your concern about the student in terms of specific changes in behavior or performance (not your suspicions about alcohol/drugs.)
- Confront the student with the behaviors that are of concern
- Address the substance abuse issue if the student is open and willing
- Offer support and concern for the student's overall well-being
- Suggest that the student talk to a counselor about these issues and maintain contact with the student after a referral is made
- Convey judgment or criticism about the student's substance use
- Make allowances for the student's irresponsible behavior
- Ignore signs of intoxication in the classroom
The Suspicious Student
Suspicious students usually complain about something other than their psychological difficulties. They are tense, cautious, mistrustful, and have few friends. These students tend to interpret a minor oversight as significant personal rejection and often overreact to insignificant occurrences. They see themselves as the focal point of everyone's behavior and everything that happens has special meaning.
Usually they are overly concerned with fairness and being treated equally. They project blame onto others and will express anger indirectly. Many times they will feel worthless and inadequate.
- Send clear, consistent messages regarding what you are willing to do and what you expect
- Express compassion without being overly friendly or familiar
- Be aware of personal boundaries and space when interacting
- Let them know that you are concerned
- Refer to the counseling center
- Be overly warm or sympathetically close to the student
- Flatter the student, laugh with them or be humorous
- Assure the student that you are their friend or advocate
- Assure them that you will be fair in your treatment of them
The Student Who May Have an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders are very prevalent with more than 5 million Americans suffering from an eating disorder. College women ages 18-22 have a higher incidence than those younger, older, or not in college with 5 percent of women having an eating disorder and 15 percent of young women having substantially disordered eating attitudes and behaviors (at Whittier College, about 100 women students). Eating disorders are men's issues too with college men reporting restrictive eating behaviors.
Eating disorders can last from months to years. If left untreated, they disrupt social relationships, school, and work. They cause psychological and medical problems that can be permanent and can cause death. All eating problems are damaging to a person's self-esteem. If the problem lasts long enough, the person feels trapped and hopeless and is afraid he/she will never recover.
Some of the warning signs of an eating disorder include:
- Marked increase or decrease in weight that is not related to a medical condition.
- Abnormal eating habits, such as secretive bingeing, absence in dining halls, eating peculiar combinations of food, etc.
- Intense preoccupation with weight and body image; this may be evidenced by frequently weighing self and constant self-criticism of body.
- Compulsive or excessive exercising, as evidenced by expressions of extreme guilt if the person doesn’t exercise; rigid routine unrelated to athletic training; exercising when injured, or negative effects in other areas of life (e.g. missing classes to exercise).
- Restrictive eating or purging through vomiting, fasting, laxatives, diet pills or diuretics.
- Emotional instability--moodiness, depression, loneliness, and/or irritability.
- Establish rapport with the student
- Focus on specific behaviors that concern you. Behaviors are difficult to deny.
- Do not get into a battle over whether or not the student should label the behavior an “eating disorder.” Focus on the negative consequences of the student’s actions and appeal to a desire to reduce or eliminate these negative consequences.
- If you have information from a third party you may want to involve that person in the process. Roommates can be particularly informative with this problem.
- The student may deny the problem. At this point you may want to consult with the Dean of Students or counseling center staff. If the student’s behaviors appear to be life threatening, then definitely seek assistance.
- Reassure the student that help is available and change is possible.
- Try to get the student to make a commitment to contact a counseling and/or medical referral. If the student expresses reluctance, find out why and address the concerns.
- Follow-up; show continued support; ask about the referral.
- Confront the student when you do not have privacy.
- Argue with the student.
- Give advice about weight loss, exercise, or appearance.
- Attempt to force the student to eat.
The Student Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted
It is important to respond sensitively to students who disclose having experienced a sexual assault or an attempted assault. Most assaults go unreported in any formal way. One-third of women do not tell anyone of their experience, and two-thirds tell a friend or other trusted individual. Complicating the issue of reporting is the fact that most assailants are persons known to the victim; they are not strangers.
If you are the person trusted with this information, what can you do?
- Listen to the person's account
- Prompt the person to continue the narrative by asking “and then what happened?”
- Let the person know you care about his/her well-being
- Appreciate any feelings disclosed as normal under the circumstances
- Assist the person in obtaining additional support and help (see resources below)
- Ask about the person’s physical condition, i.e., the possibility of physical injury or exposure to disease or (for women) pregnancy
- Ask about the person’s current experience of safety; if they do not feel safe in their environment, offer assistance in increasing their sense of safety
- Relate your own experience or story in any detail
- Pursue specific details, except to clarify what you are hearing
- Offer judgments about what might have been done differently
- Make decisions for the person
Some resources to consider
- Campus Counseling Center 562.907.4239
- Campus Student Health & Wellness Center 562.464.4548
- Campus Safety 562.907.4211
- Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital 562.698.0811
- Project Sister Rape Crisis Center 24-hour hotline 909.626.4357 or 626.966.4155
- Planned Parenthood 562.866.0556
The student may need and want to seek medical attention, even some time after the assault, to check for physical damage and to test for sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.
Note that if the person who reports an offense requests a change in academic, living or work arrangements as a result of the offense, the College must make reasonable efforts to accommodate such requests. The student should be advised of the right to make a formal complaint of the assault to the police department in the city where the assault occurred; if the assailant is a member of the campus community, a complaint can be filed with the Dean of Students (if the assailant is a student;) the Dean of Faculty (if the assailant is a faculty member); or the Director of Human Resources (if the assailant is a staff member). Details of the adjudication process are available in the Student Handbook and in the Faculty/Staff Handbook.
Federal law requires all campus personnel (except counselors in the Counseling Center) to make an anonymous report of an incident of sexual assault to Campus Safety. This report is used for statistical purposes and contains only the nature of the incident and the location and date of occurrence.