Counseling Services

A Faculty and Staff Guide to Talking with Students in Emotional Distress


Signs that a Student May be Experiencing Emotional Distress

  • Agitation
  • A loss of interest in things usually enjoyed
  • Angry outbursts, hitting objects in anger
  • Bizarre, alarming, or dangerous behaviors
  • Confusion or poor concentration
  • Depressed or hopeless attitude
  • Excessive absences, especially when attendance has been good
  • Dependency (e.g., the student who hangs around you or makes excessive appointments to see you)
  • Excessive procrastination 
  • Fearfulness
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Increased irritability
  • Indecisiveness
  • Lack of energy
  • Nervousness
  • Unduly aggressive or abrasive behavior
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses that are inappropriate to the situation
  • Marked change in class participation or quality of work
  • Poorly prepared work or little or no work completed
  • Social withdrawal, a major shift in social group, or isolation

Most students may exhibit a few of these distress signs at times, but they will probably go away quickly. In considering the kinds of signs that merit special attention and suggest referral to counseling, look for acute changes and/or numerous signs that linger.

If you are concerned about a student exhibiting several of these signs, you might want to consider asking him or her to stop by during office hours, at which time you may convey that you recognize he or she does not seem him or herself. A useful way to express your concern is to use objective examples - perhaps pointing out changes in his or her academic work or class attendance. If you feel comfortable doing so, suggest the student make an appointment at Counseling Services or at the service of their choice. Remember that you are always welcome to consult with a counselor in Counseling Services prior to meeting with a student.


Talking With A Distressed Student

This can be a challenging task but a worthwhile one, given the powerful effect that a faculty or staff member can have on his or her students. Straightforwardly acknowledging your students' distress is usually a helpful place to begin. You might want to observe that you have noted changes in them, that you are concerned about their welfare, and that you are willing to help them explore sources of help.

When preparing to discuss your concerns, remember these considerations: 

Adopt A Concerned Attitude

  • At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it should be pointed out that a distressed student is frequently helped simply by the knowledge that someone cares enough to be concerned about him or her.

Attend To Dangerous And Inappropriate Behavior

  • The student can be informed that strange or inappropriate behavior is distracting to others and is in fact inappropriate.
  • You should never place yourself in a dangerous position. Behavior that is dangerous or threatening should be reported immediately to the Winthrop University Police Department 803/323-3333.
  • Behavior that violates the Student Code of Conduct should be reported to Judicial Affairs 803/323-4503.

Contact Us

  • We suggest that you consider contacting Counseling Services directly to share pertinent information about a student you have referred. Your perspective and observations are valuable to us, and we welcome any information you wish to share.
  • Depending on the circumstances you may ask the student's permission to inform Counseling Services about the referral.
  • All referral information is subject to the same confidentiality standard as any other clinical information, so counselors cannot confirm or deny that a student has followed through on a referral.

Inform And Reassure

  • Students go to Counseling Services with a wide variety of problems.
  • Some students continue to have a stereotyped view that only those with serious mental illness seek counseling. It can be useful to assure a student that seeking help doesn't necessarily mean that he or she has a serious problem.
  • Consider suggesting that the distressed student talk to parents, a physician, clergy, advisors, or other sources of help on campus in addition to Counseling Services.
  • Explain that counseling sessions are free.

Make Decisions Mutually

  • Working with a student regarding referrals creates the best climate for helping, unless he or she is seriously disturbed and unable to accept such responsibility.
  • Threats or involuntary referrals make for a hostile attitude and/or an unmotivated client.
  • Accept a student's refusal to make an appointment or being adamant about not using on-campus services.
  • A student may not be interested in immediately following through on a counseling referral but often acts on the referral later.

Practice Honesty

  • It is best to be frank with a student (and yourself) about the limits of your ability to assist (e.g., limits of time, energy, training, objectivity).
  • It is often reassuring to a student to hear that you respect his or her willingness to talk to you and that you want to support him or her in getting needed assistance.

Respect Privacy

  • Talk to the student in private when both of you have time and neither of you is rushed or preoccupied.
  • It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel comfortable about what to do next.

Use Advantageous Timing

  • If a student is receptive toward a referral, you might want to offer him or her access to your phone and the number for Counseling Services 803/323-2206.
  • Counseling Services requires that a student schedule his or her own appointments.
  • You might also consider walking the student to our office, Crawford 217, for a same-day appointment.

Sometimes the nature of a psychological condition can pose a more serious challenge to providing the assistance that a distressed student needs. Such a condition may include a psychological disorder where an individual's poor insight or understanding of the problem is part of the disorder, as is generally true with anorexia nervosa, certain paranoid disorders, and mania, for example. In such cases, it is not uncommon for several members of the University community (i.e.: Faculty, Staff, Dean of Students, Counseling Services, etc.) to work together to assist students with these kinds of disorders in getting the help they need.

Please remember that the staff of Counseling Services is available to consult with you about referral issues. Simply give us a call or drop us an e-mail.

Counseling Services Staff