Ask the Expert: How to recognize, respond to and refer a student in distress

Being a college student has always come with a fair amount of stress, whether from being away from home for the first time, juggling impending deadlines, or feeling the pressure to pick and plan a career. This year, students are also dealing with the fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis, the demands of navigating new ways of learning, and the isolation that can be a result of physical distancing.

Luciana GuardiniView print quality image
Luciana Guardini, outreach coordinator for Counseling and Psychological Services. Photo by Chris Howell, Indiana University

This is why it's never been more important for Indiana University faculty and staff to be able to recognize and respond to students in distress, said Luciana Guardini, outreach coordinator for Counseling and Psychological Services at the IU Student Health Center.

"Some people have the internal and external resources to adapt to the ever-changing environment we are living in and are able to do things that help them regain a sense of safety and control," Guardini said. "Others have more challenges with doing that. Right now, it's so important to keep our eyes open, reach out and be familiar with what resources are available."

Recognize

Often, classmates or friends of a student in distress might approach faculty or staff with concerns about the individual's well-being. Other times, individuals might self-report to faculty or staff who they know and trust.

But recognizing when a student is struggling with mental health is not always straightforward, especially during a time of online classes and remote work. Guardini recommends you keep an eye out for these red flags that may be a sign of a student in distress:

  • Drastic changes in appearance, including a lack of personal hygiene or rapid weight loss.
  • Radical changes in behavior, like increased anger or unusually emotional reactions.
  • Exhibiting or talking about new, reckless behaviors.
  • Pressured or rapid speech that is atypical for the individual.
  • Behavior that indicates the person is not in touch with reality.

While some of these signs may be harder to catch via Zoom, Guardini said a student who suddenly stops submitting assignments, quits engaging in class, misses class without following up, or stops communicating suddenly might also be experiencing anxiety or depression.

Respond

It is important to understand the do's and don'ts of responding to students experiencing anxiety and/or depression, especially if the individual has confided in you about the challenges they are facing.

"If someone comes to you with that information, it means they trust you," Guardini said. "You have a person in a very vulnerable moment in their life coming to you because it feels safe. We have to know how to help."

Unfortunately, Guardini said, some of the most natural human reactions to others who are suffering can be less than helpful. For example, sharing messages of reassurance like "Everything will be OK," and "Oh, it's really not that bad" can actually make individuals feel invalidated and unheard.

Guardini said it is also not always helpful to jump into "advice mode." Recommending that someone just go outside, get some exercise or think positive thoughts can come off as condescending.

"It's a very human reaction to try to fix the person or their problems, but sometimes we can't do that," Guardini said. "If all it took were a walk or some positive thoughts to feel better, the person who is suffering would have done it already."

Pushing someone you suspect might be in distress into talking about their feelings before they are ready can also be a mistake, Guardini said. The one exception is if you suspect the person might be suicidal or inclined to hurt others. One of the most important don'ts, Guardini said, is to promise secrecy to someone who has expressed thoughts of harming themselves or harming others.

"If a student tells you that suicide is clear and imminent, there is a procedure you must follow to make our community safe for everyone and for the person having those thoughts," Guardini said. "Don't make promises you can't keep, like 'Everything is going be fine,' or 'Your secret is safe with me.'"

So how should you respond? Guardini said empathy goes a long way. In addition to validating the student's feelings, you can also share beneficial resources with them, offer to support them in seeking professional help, and continue to follow up and check in on them.

Refer

While there are many ways faculty and staff can support students in distress, there are certain situations that require intervention from a crisis counselor or, possibly, the police. Guardini said it's time to call on a professional if:

  • You fear the student might harm themselves or others.
  • The student is displaying strange or bizarre behavior that indicates they have lost touch with reality.
  • The student's behavior has changed dramatically, their speech is rapid and pressed, and they are considering making drastic or reckless changes to their life.
  • The student can no longer function in their day-to-day life.

If you believe suicide or harm to others is clear and imminent, call 911. In a nonemergency situation, call the Counseling and Psychological Services crisis line at 812-855-5711. You can also submit a Care Referral form on the Division of Student Affairs' website.

Guardini recommends that faculty and staff familiarize themselves with the resources, services and programs that Counseling and Psychological Services offers to students so you can refer those in distress. Counselors offer presentations to faculty and staff about services and other mental health issues upon request.

You can also subscribe to the CAPS Newsletter to stay informed about IU Bloomington's mental health services and resources.