U-M Counseling and Psychological Services

photo of student looking out of window

Students dealing with personal concerns and in distress typically show some outward signs that they are struggling in some way.  All of us experience life’s “ups and down,” but significant distress experienced over a period of time may suggest a more serious problem.   There are different levels of distress and these can be represented through a continuum.  How you go about helping a student will depend on several actors: their level of distress, the nature of your relationship, the type of setting you are in and your comfort level.  The following information includes what to look out for and suggestions on how to help.

Find more information on Consultation and Crisis Respone HERE.

Mild Distress

Students in mild distress may exhibit behaviors that do not disrupt others but may indicate something is wrong and that assistance is needed.

 

Behaviors may include:

  • Serious grade problems or a change from consistently passing grades to unaccountably poor performance.
  • Excessive absences, especially if the student has previously demonstrated consistent attendance.
  • Unusual or markedly changed patterns of interaction, i.e., avoidance of participation, excessive anxiety when called upon, domination of discussions, etc.
  • Other characteristics that suggest the student is having trouble managing stress successfully (e.g., a depressed, lethargic mood; very rapid speech; swollen, red eyes; marked change in personal dress and hygiene; falling asleep during class).

How to provide assistance to a student experiencing mild distress

  • Deal directly with the behavior/problem according to classroom protocol.
  • Allow the student to speak freely about their current situation and the variables that may be affecting their distress.
  • Consult with a colleague, department head, Dean of Students Office professional, or a campus counseling professional.
  • Refer the student to one of the University resources. See referral phone numbers listed later in this article.
  • For these behaviors or problems you can choose to handle them in the following ways:

Moderate Distress

Students in moderate distress may exhibit behaviors that indicate significant emotional distress. They may also be reluctant or unable to acknowledge a need for personal help.

 

Behaviors include:

  • Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions, especially if the student appears uncomfortable or highly emotional while disclosing the circumstances prompting the request.
  • New or repeated behavior which pushes the limits of decorum and which interferes with effective management of the immediate environment.
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses that is obviously inappropriate to the situation.

How to provide assistance to a student experiencing moderate distress

For these behaviors or problems you can choose to handle them in the following ways:

  • Deal directly with the behavior/problem according to classroom protocol.
  • Allow the student to speak freely about their current situation and the variables that may be affecting their distress.
  • Consult with a colleague, department head, Dean of Students Office professional, or a campus counseling professional.
  • Refer the student to one of the University resources. See referral phone numbers listed later in this article.

Severe Distress

Students in severe distress exhibit behaviors that signify an obvious crisis and that necessitate emergency care. These problems are the easiest to identify. Examples include:

 

  • Highly disruptive behavior (e.g. hostility, aggression, violence, etc.).
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech; unconnected, disjointed, or rambling thoughts).
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing or hearing things which others cannot see or hear; beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability).
  • Stalking behaviors.
  • Inappropriate communications (including threatening letters, e-mail messages, harassment).
  • Overtly suicidal thoughts (including referring to suicide as a current option or in a written assignment).
  • Threats to harm others.

    How to provide assistance to students in severe distress

    For these behaviors or problems you can choose to handle them in the following ways:

    • Remain calm and know whom to call for help, if necessary.
    • Find someone to stay with the student while calls to the appropriate resources are made.  
    • Remember that it is NOT your responsibility to provide the professional help needed for a severely troubled/disruptive student. You need only to make the necessary call and request assistance.
    • When a student expresses a direct threat to themselves or others, or acts in a bizarre, highly irrational or disruptive way, call the Department of Public Safety 734 763-1131.

Guidelines for talking with a student with any level of distress

  • Accept and respect what is said.
  • Try to focus on an aspect of the problem that is manageable.
  • Avoid easy answers such as, "Everything will be all right."
  • Help identify resources needed to improve things.
  • Help the person recall constructive methods used in the past to cope; get the person to agree to do something constructive to change things.
  • Trust your insight and reactions
  • Let others know your concerns.
  • Attempt to address the person's needs and seek appropriate resources.
  • Do not swear secrecy or offer confidentiality to the person.
  • Encourage the person to seek help.
  • Respect the student's value system, even if you don't agree.

If you are worried about a student's safety:

  • When called for, let the person know you are worried about their safety and describe the behavior or situation that is worrisome to you.
  • If you are concerned the student may be feeling hopeless and thinking about ending their life, ask if she/he is contemplating suicide. It is important to remember that talking about suicide is a cry for help and is not to be ignored.
  • Offer yourself as a caring person until professional assistance has been obtained.
  • After the student leaves your office, make some notes documenting your interactions.
  • Consult with others on your experience.

Warning signs for when to refer a student for further assistance

  • Manifests a change in personality (goes from being actively involved to quiet and withdrawn, or goes from being quiet to more agitated or demanding).
  • Begins to display aggressive or abusive behavior to self or others; exhibits excessive risk-taking.
  • Shows signs of memory loss.
  • Shows loose or incoherent thought patterns, has difficulty focusing thoughts, or displays nonsensical conversation patterns.
  • Exhibits behaviors or emotions that is inappropriate to the situation.
  • Displays extreme suspiciousness or irrational fears of persecution; withdraws, does not allow others to be close; believes she/he is being watched, followed, etc.
  • Exhibits signs of hyperactivity (unable to sit still, difficulty maintaining focus, gives the impression of going "too fast," appears agitated).
  • Shows signs of depression (no visible emotions or feelings, appears lethargic, weight loss, looks exhausted and complains of sleeping poorly, displays feelings of worthlessness or self-hatred, or is apathetic about previous interests).
  • Talks about unusual patterns of eating, not eating, or excessively eating.
  • Shows signs of injury to self, cuts, bruises, or sprains.
  • Experiences deteriorating academic performance (incapacitating test anxiety, sporadic class attendance, or extended absences from class).
  • Begins or increases alcohol or other drug use.
  • Makes statements regarding suicide, homicide, feelings of hopelessness, or helplessness.

CAPS as a resource

At Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), we have a diverse staff of mental health professionals providing confidential, solution-focused individual, couples and group therapy to currently enrolled U of M students at no charge.  CAPS’s main focus is providing college student mental health services.  CAPS regularly provides immediate advice to concerned faculty and staff through the Counselor on Duty service.

Find out how to make a referral HERE