How to Identify & Refer a Distressed Student

How You Can Help

University students often encounter a great deal of stress during the course of their academic experience. While most students cope successfully with the challenges that these years bring, an increasing number of students find that the various pressures of life are unmanageable or unbearable. As faculty members and staff, you often encounter these distressed students in your offices or your classrooms. Some of these students have not sought any professional assistance. Thus, your role is a crucial one in identifying and referring students who are in distress.

Some Signs & Symptoms of a Student in Distress

Academic Signs

  • Chronic absence from class
  • Marked deterioration in quality of academic work, e.g., good work at the beginning of the semester and then very poor work
  • Excessive procrastination, e.g., repeated re-scheduling of examinations, requests for extensions on written work
  • Burdensome dependency, e.g., hanging around your office
  • Alarming content in written work or class discussions, e.g., personalized suicidal preoccupations, bizarre thought processes

Personal/Behavioral Signs

  • Unusual deterioration in hygiene or physical appearance
  • Unruly or aggressive behavior
  • Obvious depression or sadness, beyond the norm
  • Significant gain/loss of weight or extreme thinness
  • Bizarre or strange behavior
  • Unusual mood changes or withdrawal from social involvement
  • References to suicide

Guidelines for Your Interaction

  • Make an appointment with the student to meet you in your office where you can talk in private.
  • Mention a positive quality along with the reasons for your concerns.  For example, "Your work was good at the beginning of the semester, but lately; I have noticed a change..."
  • Listen carefully to the student, make eye contact.
  • Follow up. Set a time to meet the student again.
  • Do not be surprised or discouraged if the student resists your help.
  • Do not hesitate to consult with one of the mental health specialists at the Center.

When to Refer

  • If there are references to suicide or hopelessness
  • If the student's behavior is alarming to you
  • If the initial signs or symptoms were beyond your level of expertise
  • If there is no change, or a worsening of the situation, after your initial efforts to help
  • If you feel there are personality differences between you and the student that interfere with the student's progress
  • If the student is reluctant to discuss the problem with you

How to Make a Referral to the Center

  • Tell the student the reason for your wanting them to make an appointment at Counseling Services.
  • Be sure and discuss the confidentiality of Counseling Services.  No one outside the Center will know that an individual is in counseling unless the student tells them or signs a release of information form at Counseling Services.  If you want to know if the student keeps the appointment,  ask the student to sign the form at Counseling Services . Assure the student that information about counseling does not appear on any school records.
  • Suggest that the student call or come in to make an appointment.  Give the Center's phone number (402) 280-2735 and location: Harper Center, Room 1034
  • If you want to be sure that the student makes an appointment, you can offer to phone Counseling Services while the student is in your office.  The person who answers the phone at Counseling Services can schedule an appointment.
  • If the situation seems urgent, tell the person who answers the phone that "the student needs an appointment immediately."
  • Sometimes it is useful or necessary for you to walk the student over to Counseling Services.  If this is necessary, you should notify Counseling Services that you are walking over, so that a professional can arrange to meet with the student as soon as possible.
  • If you are uncertain how to handle a situation, call Counseling Services and consult with one of the professionals. Counseling Services welcomes the opportunity to work with faculty and staff.

Emergencies and After Hours

Crisis intervention is a service offered to students who are in serious, immediate emotional distress. Counselors are on call 24 hours a day to handle emergencies such as suicide attempts, rape or attempted rape, physical assaults, and other types of crises. If your student is in a psychological crisis, visit or call Counseling Services during regular business hours at (402) 280-2735 and tell the front desk staff you have an emergency. After hours during the week or on weekends, you may call Public Safety at (402) 280-2911 and ask them to page the mental health specialist on call, who will call you back.