Faculty are in a unique position to help students in distress. Students hold professors in high esteem. Thus, faculty can offer them the kind of advice and direction that they will consider carefully. During teaching or advising, you may observe students showing signs of distress. Some faculty receive lengthy and often disturbing emails or social media messages. If you find yourself in the position of getting personal information from students, they most likely view you as a compassionate and respectful listener. Faculty, for the most part, are not trained counselors, and even if they are, they do not function in that role as professors due to the ethical mandates that discourage dual-role relationships. The challenge for faculty is to define the most appropriate ways to help a distressed student. The following information can assist faculty in making those choices.
Signs and Symptoms Warning of Student Distress
- Excessive procrastination and poorly prepared work, notably if inconsistent with previous work
- Infrequent class attendance with little or no work completed
- Unusual dependency: hanging around or making excessive demands for contact outside of standard periods of association
- Listlessness or frequently falling asleep in class
- Repeated requests for special consideration
- Marked changes in personal hygiene
- High levels of irritability, including unruly, aggressive, violent, or abrasive behaviors
- Inability to make decisions despite your repeated efforts to clarify or encourage
- Appearing weak or malnourished
- Normal emotions that are displayed to an extreme degree or for a prolonged period: for example, tearfulness or nervousness
- Possible symptoms of emerging psychosis: hallucinations (auditory or visual), delusions (paranoia, grandiosity)
- Threats to others*
- Reference to suicide as a current option*
*Refer immediately to the Counseling Center (413-572-5790); if the whereabouts of the student are unknown, contact Campus Police (413-572-5262)
"When should I consider intervening?"
Students often find the college years stressful, although most handle difficult situations adequately. However, some students find that stress becomes unmanageable and keeps them from pursuing their personal and academic goals. They may need to seek counseling for a variety of reasons, including stress, depression, anxiety, family and relationship issues, physical or sexual abuse, academic difficulties, substance abuse, and issues about sexual identity. Many instructors become concerned when they observe behaviors that indicate student distress, such as frequently missed classes, social withdrawal, crying in the office, or submitting disturbing material in academic assignments. In general, students who exhibit the signs or symptoms listed––notably if their problems have compromised their ability to function academically, personally, or socially––are those you may consider referring to the Counseling Center.
Verbal expressions or behaviors that indicate risk for harm to self or others should be considered cause for immediate referral. A faculty member should not attempt to assess the degree of risk; only professionals trained in crisis assessment can make this judgment. If you have any suspicions about a student being at risk, you should refer them.
"How do I express my concerns to the student?"
- Talk to the student in private
- State your specific reasons for concern
- Listen carefully
- Avoid criticizing or sounding judgmental
- Discuss with the student a referral to the Counseling Center (have Counseling Center brochures on hand)
- Do not assure students of confidentiality. As faculty, you may need to provide information to others who can assist the student. As well, Title IX mandates campus reporting of incidents of sexual violence, and you may need to disclose this information.
"How can I assist the student who might be reluctant to seek counseling?"
- Open up the Counseling Center website for specific information about services
- Remind them that services are available to them at no cost
- If the student doesn't think their concerns are at the point of needing counseling, remind them that it can help prevent one's problems from reaching crisis proportions. The fact that one is seeking counseling doesn't mean one is in bad shape or "crazy"
- Acknowledge, validate, and discuss the student's real fears and concerns about seeking help
- Emphasize counseling as an empowering tool of change for those who choose to use it
"How can I help a student make an appointment at the Counseling Center?
- If the student is with you, offer the use of your office phone for them to call and make an appointment. Consider dialing the Counseling Center (413-572-5790) if the student wishes you to do so while in your presence. During the call, explain that a student wishes to make an appointment. Afterward, have the student take over the call to make the appointment.
If you feel the situation is an emergency, call the Counseling Center, identify yourself, and inform the administrative assistant of the student's need to be seen as soon as possible by the on-call counselor. Walk the student over to the Center. The Counseling Center prioritizes an appointment for any student in crisis. There is on-call staff during office hours: M-F, 9-5. Other than for crises/emergencies, the Counseling Center makes every attempt to schedule appointments within a week. Students who request to be seen by a specific individual may need to wait longer. There will always be same-day appointments available as well.
Once a student becomes a client at the Counseling Center, the terms of confidentiality apply. Unless the student signs a Consent for Release of Information, the Counseling Center may release no further information about the student. That means you, as the referral source, will not be able to obtain any information about the student after admission occurs. The terms of client confidentiality are per Massachusetts's General Laws Allied Board of Mental Health and within the ethical/professional mandates of the licensing boards governing the practices of all licensed professionals providing services in the Counseling Center.
"What if the student resists or refuses to seek counseling?"
Unless the student is at risk for harm to self or others, counseling remains a voluntary option. Despite every effort to facilitate a referral, the student may choose not to follow through on your suggestion that they seek counseling. If you find yourself in this situation, continue to express your belief that they could benefit from counseling and keep your offer of help available to the student. Document the whole process for your files should you need to verify your assistance to this student in the future.
If a student is at risk for harm to self or others, notify the Counseling Center ASAP by calling 413-572-5790! If the student leaves with the intent to disregard your referral or if you believe a student is at risk, but are unaware of the student's current whereabouts, call Public Safety (413-572-5252) who will then notify the appropriate personnel to facilitate an assessment. For after-hours emergencies, contact Public Safety.
"What if I need consultation regarding a student about whom I may have concerns?"
The Counseling Center is available for consultation with faculty and staff. If you have concerns about any student, you may seek consultation by phone (413-572-5790) or in person from the daytime on-call counselor. We will assist you, but please know that without their written consent, we may not provide any specific information about students who might be clients of the Counseling Center. However, we can give general advice about working with students who may be struggling.