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Students of Concern: A Guide for Faculty and Staff

  1. Introduction
  2. Spectrum of Issues
  3. What You Can Do
  4. Levels of Concern and Indicators of Distress


College is a time of growth, excitement and personal discovery. For some students, it can also be a time for unforeseen problems and challenges. While most students successfully cope with the demands of the college-experience, it might prove overwhelming and unmanageable for others. A significant number of college students have their educational and personal lives disrupted by psychological problems which, if left untreated, may result in academic failure and even withdrawal from the university. Benedictine University is committed to the health and safety of all members of our community and being aware of distress signals, methods of intervention and on-campus resources can help you assist students.

Faculty and staff members have an important role in identifying and responding to students who are potentially at-risk. Since faculty and staff members observe students on-campus both in and out of the classroom, you may be the first to notice warning signs or be the first person a student turns to in a time of need. This guide is designed to be used as a reference and resource for helping faculty and staff interact with students who are in various levels of distress. It provides information about recognizing behavioral signs that warrant concern, managing difficult situations, reporting behaviors of concern and tips for helping students.

Spectrum of Issues

Faculty and staff members may encounter a number of behaviors that might be cause for concern, discomfort or that may interfere with your work or the education of students. It is helpful to think about these behaviors as falling across a spectrum ranging from general concerns you may have about a particular student to a student who poses a direct threat to himself/herself or to the campus community.

While the levels we have identified are not always clear-cut and don’t necessarily unfold in a clear progression, it is helpful to conceptualize behaviors falling into two levels of concern.

  • MILD-MODERATE Distress
  • SEVERE Distress

Faculty and staff can play an invaluable role in helping students in all levels of distress. Your expression of interest, concern and compassion are important factors in encouraging a student to seek the assistance they need. How you go about helping a student will depend upon several factors: the student’s level of distress, the nature of your relationship, the type of setting you are in and your own comfort level. The following sections include what to look out for and how to help.

What You Can Do

Although you may be the first to notice a student who is experiencing difficulty, it is important to remember that you do not have to take on the role of the counselor. You need only listen, express your support for them and offer resource referral information.

It’s possible you may notice only one indicator and decide that something is clearly wrong. You may have a gut feeling something is amiss. A simple check-in with the student may help you get a better sense of their situation.

Be careful to note that any one indicator by itself may simply mean that a student is having an “off” day. However, any one serious sign (i.e., a student writes a paper expressing hopelessness and thoughts of suicide) or a cluster of smaller signs (i.e., emotional outbursts, repeated absences and noticeable cuts on the arm) indicate the need to take action on behalf of the student. When in doubt, please don’t hesitate to consult with a counselor in the Counseling Center. Here are some suggestions which might make the situation more comfortable for you and more helpful for the student.

  • Talk to the student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied. Give the student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel cared about as an individual and more confident about decision-making.

  • If you initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental 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.”

  • Offer hope. Assure the student that things can get better. It is important to help the student realize there are options and that things will not always seem hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy or professionals on-campus. Recognize that your purpose is to enable the student to consult appropriate resources, not to solve the student’s problem.

  • Avoid judging, evaluating and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. Such behavior is apt to push the student away from you and from the help he or she needs. It is important to respect the student’s value system, even if you disagree.

  • Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations. It is important to maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student or staff/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations, exam schedules, etc. If students express interest in a withdrawal, please refer to his/her academic advisor.

  • Consult. You may call the Counseling Center for a consultation about the student. We will be glad to talk with you about your hunches, worries and concerns. Please be aware that confidentiality prevents counselors from sharing information about a student that is already a client.

  • Refer. In making a referral, it is important to point out to the student that help is available and seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure.
    It may be helpful to point out that seeking professional help for other problems such as medical, legal or car problems is considered good judgment and as appropriate use of resources. For example, “if you had pneumonia, you would go to a doctor rather than try to tough it out.” If you can, prepare the student for what he or she might expect if your advice is taken. Tell the student what you know about the Counseling Center on campus.

  • Follow-Up. Arrange a follow-up meeting with the student to solidify his or her resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist in the process. Later, check with the student to see if the referral appointment was kept and to hear about the experience. Continue to provide support while the student takes the appropriate actions.

Due to confidentiality laws, the Counseling Center staff cannot confirm or deny that the referred student has met with us unless the student has given us a release of information. Therefore, it is best for the faculty or staff member to follow-up with the student.

Levels of Concern and Indicators of Distress

Mild Distress and Moderate Distress

Students in mild to moderate distress may exhibit behaviors that do not disrupt others but may indicate that something is wrong and that assistance is needed. More than likely, the majority of students that arouse concern will fall into this category. Students in moderate levels of distress may be those who come to you either after class or during your office hours and report significant personal issues which may be disrupting their life. Students in moderate distress may exhibit behaviors that indicate significant emotional distress. Students experiencing the death of a loved one; a bad break up with a significant other; or a reported sexual or physical assault might be considered moderate levels of distress. While students at this level of concern might not warrant an immediate assessment with a counselor, we recommend that you encourage the student to seek help through the Counseling Center.

Depending on the intensity and duration of the indicators below, there are a variety of options for how you can help a student. You may simply make a recommendation to the student to seek counseling or, if you feel it necessary, accompany the student to our office to fill out the paperwork. The process will only take a few minutes. In addition, a referral to the Campus Response Evaluation (CARE) Team is another option. Students can be brought to the attention of the CARE Team by completing the CARE Team Referral form.

Please see section “What You Can Do” for additional tips on how to reach out to a student.

Academic Indicators of Mild-Moderate Distress
  • Changes in behavior such as repeated absences from class or missed assignments.
  • Deterioration in quality of work.
  • Continual seeking of special provisions.
  • Patterns of perfectionism (i.e., can’t accept themselves if they don’t get an A+).
  • Overblown or disproportionate response to grades or evaluations.
Behavioral/Emotional Indicators of Mild-Moderate Distress
  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems or loss.
  • More withdrawn or more animated than usual.
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness, crying or tearfulness.
  • Expressions of severe anxiety or irritability.
  • Excessive demanding or dependent behavior.
  • Lack of response to outreach from staff.
  • Shakiness, tremors, fidgeting or pacing.
Physical Indicators of Mild Moderate Distress
  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene.
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion; falling asleep in class repeatedly.
  • Visible changes in weight; statements about changes in appetite or sleep.
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises or burns.
  • Frequent or chronic illness.
  • Unusual inability to make eye contact.
  • Coming to class bleary-eyed or smelling of alcohol.
Other Indictors of Mild-Moderate Distress
  • Concern about a student from their peers or teaching assistant.
  • A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong.
Severe Distress

It may be helpful to clarify a key distinction – the difference between students who are in emotional distress versus students whose behavior is disruptive to others. Students who are distressed are experiencing emotional pain, which may be generated by external factors and/or internal characteristics. Sometimes, this emotional distress can be observed by others – it may show up as public tearfulness, angry comments and extreme withdrawal from others, or in other ways which drastically impair a student’s ability to function and be successful on-campus. Students in severe emotional distress should be referred to our office. Students generally find counseling helpful in addressing their concerns. Feel free to walk the student to the Counseling Center office right away.

Students who are displaying disruptive behaviors, on the other hand, are those who cause distress for other people (e.g. instructors, classmates, administrators, roommates) due to their inappropriate behaviors. Behavioral concerns should be reported through your department’s designated reporting channels. In the majority of instances, however, students in severe distress may also exhibit disruptive behaviors as well as emotional distress. In these instances, it is appropriate to contact either the vice president of Student Life ext. 6606 or the Counseling Center ext. 1800 for the most immediate response. The appropriate level of support will be coordinated through both offices. If the student poses an immediate threat, then contact University Police at ext. 6666.

Academic Indicators of Severe Distress
  • Extreme disorganization or erratic performance.
  • Written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, confusion, essays or papers that focus on suicide or death.
Behavioral/Emotional Indicators of Severe Distress
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling or aggressive comments.
  • Talking about hurting themselves.
Physical Indicators of Severe Distress
  • Disorganized speech, confusion, or rapid or slowed speech.

Counseling Center

Liz Sodaro
Interim Assistant Director