Getting Help for a Student
Concerned about a student? Here’s what to do:
According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (2017), data shows a steadily increasing utilization of counseling services on college campuses. In addition, the number of students taking psychiatric medications, being hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, purposely self-harming, and making suicide attempts, has risen. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults age 15 – 24, and there are 1,000 suicides per year on college campuses. However, college is a protective factor against suicide. Mental health problems will not stay out of the classroom. Student’s emotions are a part of the faculty’s everyday lives. Community-wide awareness, support, and intervention are absolute necessities.
Emotions can be intense. We all experience a range of feelings, both positive and negative. Emotions do not constitute mental health problems unless they become unmanageable and impede functioning. You do not need to be a mental health professional to speak about emotions. Start to become more comfortable with asking “Are you OK?”
Students Seeking Support
Think about the student’s primary motivation for seeking support. Mental health problems are one of the many possibilities. Motivations may include:
- Struggling to maintain expectations and standards
- Prior history – success vs. disappointment
- Sense of urgency
- Self-esteem in question due to a competitive setting
- Baseline anxiety
- Certain personality traits & habits
- Feeling unequipped/unprepared to navigate the world
Students may be seeking:
- Someone else to sound hopeful
- Feeling that they are being seen and understood
- Feeling of connectedness
- Recommendations for alternatives to ideal plans
- Feeling that they have a partner as they build toward the future
There are a variety of ways of communicating with someone about emotions, but the best way is empathic listening:
- Paraphrasing: restate what was said, with a focus on the feeling and empathy.
- Encourage openness by confirming: "I'm being heard and understood."
- Statement: “I feel like I’m falling apart, and I can’t take it anymore.”
- Response: “Sounds like you’re going through so much, it’s hard for you to know what to do or how to handle it. Can you say more about what’s going on?”
Tips for Listening Well
- Listening stance – “unconditional positive regard”
- Open-ended questions – “Can you say more about what’s going on” vs. “Do you think you might be depressed”
- No prying or digging – gentle encouragement
- No freaking out – “That sounds horrible” vs. “That sounds like it was very hard to cope with.”
- Sensitivity to when a person does not seem able to continue – not pushing past the person’s comfort level
- Coping with tears – many times people who are recounting a difficult experience will cry. Have tissues available. Try to avoid becoming alarmed by crying; simply sit quietly with the person and say things such as “talking about these kinds of things can be really difficult” or “it’s OK, we can keep talking whenever you’re ready.”
Determining Level of Need
We want to be open to a student’s feelings and provide support through our conversations and relationships, but we don’t want to fail to recognize signs that professional intervention is necessary.
We also don’t want to overreact (i.e. to respond to a student as if the student is in crisis when no emergency exists).
A helpful tool to help us determine a student’s level of need is the Traffic Light Model.
Traffic Light Model
Green: Challenges that may cause distress, but do not disrupt daily functioning:
- Adjustment to college
- Relationship conflicts
- Mild/moderate anxiety
- Mood changes
- Grief and loss
- Financial & housing concerns
- Time management
- Academic concerns
- Self-confidence & self-esteem
What Can We Do?
Faculty & Staff:
- Talk (and listen!) to students, provide support and encouragement.
- Remind them of resources.
- Provide programming referrals or information about problems.
- Remind students about the free & confidential Counseling Center.
- Provide individual counseling or consultation
- Provide resources to support well-being
- Provide referral to local supports
- Provide consultation to you
Yellow: students are functioning, but showing signs of more serious distress.
- Signs of depression – withdrawal, tearfulness, sadness, low motivation, changes in sleep and/or appetite
- Signs of anxiety – intense, fearful thoughts that are hard to distract from; difficulty sleeping; panic attacks; avoidance of stressful situations
- Signs of substance abuse –appearing intoxicated, rule violations, reduced academic focus
- Overwhelmed by emotions – difficulty concentrating, unhealthy coping strategies (such as self-injury), requiring regular attention and care from friend group and multiple staff
- Recent trauma – preoccupation with a traumatic event, nightmares, anxiety, fearfulness
- Other mental health symptoms – disorganized thinking, food restriction, boundary violations, etc.
- Agitation – Disruptive, restless, reckless, impulsive, aggressive
What Can We Do?
Faculty & Staff
- Listen, but never promise confidentiality.
- Inform the student of mandated reporter status.
- Refer the student to on-campus resources to improve the feeling of connectedness.
- Refer the student to the Counseling Center. Depending on the degree of distress, walk the student over, or help student call from your office.
- Notify the CARE Team.
- Evaluate student
- Provide consultation and/or counseling
- Provide referrals if the student would benefit from longer-term support or specialty care
- Consult with YOU
Red: emergency requiring an immediate response.
- The threat of suicide, preparations for suicide, suicide attempt
- Violence, aggression, presence of weapons
- Mania (recklessness, excessive energy, sleeplessness)
- Psychosis (hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts)
- Intoxication & Overdose
What Can We Do?
Faculty & Staff
- Keep listening. How to keep listening when you’re getting really worried:
- You’ll quickly realize whether the student’s issue can be adequately addressed by you, or not.
- It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, to feel the mind start to race about what to do next and to stop hearing the student as a result.
- In such moments, what is necessary to listen more, not less. The more you know, the better intervention you’ll make.
What We Must Do
- Attend to your own safety.
- Approach or speak to the student only if the student is not volatile. Do not physically hold a student in your office if they are trying to leave.
- Notify Campus Safety.
What Happens Next?
- Campus Safety will walk the student to the Counseling Center if the student is capable and notify the New Rochelle Police Department if appropriate.
- The Counseling Center will complete a mandated psychiatric evaluation and determine whether hospitalization is indicated.
- If the student cannot speak to a clinician, or if the incident is outside Counseling Center hours, Campus Safety will arrange for transport to the hospital and involve Residential Life and the Counselor On Call according to the Division of Student Life crisis protocol.
- Once the student is safe: Alert the CARE Team.
- Email or call the chair’s designee – Assistant Vice Provost Liz Olivieri – to report the events that occurred.
- The CARE team will meet and create an action plan for the student
- The Care Team assesses the threat level and can mandate further evaluation and treatment.
- You can alert the CARE Team about any students you are concerned about – before crises occur.
Reporting responsibilities exist not only to protect students and avoid legal liability but to maintain community standards of behavior.
- Potential risks and threats – mandated to report to CARE Team; immediate report to Campus Safety.
- Discrimination and Harassment – report through Bias Incident Response Protocol.
- Sexual assault and interpersonal violence –mandated to report to Title IX.
- Code of Conduct violations – report to Assistant Vice Provost Liz Olivieri.