Helping Students in Distress: Tips for Faculty

Faculty as Helping Resources for Students

This information is designed to assist you in becoming aware of signs of a distressed student. Included are indications of suicidal behavior, how to help a distressed student, and when and how to make referrals for additional help.

Warning Signs of Suicide

  • Situational: experience of a stressful or traumatic experience.
  • Emotional: agitation, apathy, crying, sadness, expressions of worthlessness, hopelessness, or helplessness.
  • Verbal: direct or indirect messages of suicidal intent, plan, or interest, verbally or in written material (assignments, papers, etc.)
  • Behavioral: giving away possessions, writing a suicide note, acquiring of means to commit suicide, organizing business and personal matters, suddenly resigning from organizations or clubs, (stopping coming to class without notice?)

Look for a cluster of signs. A suicidal person who gives warning signs will often present more than one. When the situation is not clear:

  • Share your concerns with the student directly to find out.
  • Consult the counselors at the Counseling Center

Tips for Recognizing Troubled Students

There are three levels of student distress which, when present over a period of time, suggest that the problems are more than "normal" ones.

Level 1   
Although not disruptive to others in the class, these behaviors may indicate that something is wrong and that help may be needed:

  • Serious grade problems
  • Unaccountable change from good to poor performance
  • Change from frequent attendance to excessive absences
  • Change in pattern of interaction
  • Marked change in mood, motor activity, or speech
  • Marked change in physical appearance

Level 2   
These behaviors may indicate significant emotional distress and a reluctance or inability to acknowledge a need for professional help:

  • Repeated request for special considerations
  • New or regularly occurring behavior which pushes the limits and may interfere with class management
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses

Level 3  
These behaviors usually show that the student is in crisis and needs emergency care:

  • Highly disruptive behavior (hostility, aggression, etc.)
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled slurred speech, disjointed thoughts)
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing or hearing things that are not there; beliefs or actions at odds with reality)
  • Overt suicidal talk, including a coherent plan
  • Homicidal and/or suicidal threats

What you can do to help

Responses to Level 1 and Level 2 behavior

  • Talk to the student in private when you both have time
  • Express your concern in non-judgmental terms
  • Listen to the student and repeat the gist of what the student is saying
  • State the possible costs and benefits of each option for dealing with the problem from the student’s point of view
  • Respect the student’s value system
  • Ask if the student is considering suicide
  • Make appropriate referrals if necessary
  • Make sure the student understands what action is necessary

Responses to Level 3 behavior

  • Stay calm
  • Call emergency referrals listed below

Do's and Don'ts in Responding to Suicidality

  • Do show that you take the student’s feelings seriously
  • Do let the student know that you want to help
  • Do listen attentively and empathize
  • Do reassure that with help he or she will recover
  • Do stay close until help is available
  • Don’t try to shock or challenge the student
  • Don’t analyze the student’s motives
  • Don’t become argumentative
  • Don’t react with shock or disdain at the student’s thoughts or feelings
  • Don’t minimize the student’s distress

When to Make a Referral
Even though a student asks you for help with a problem and you are willing to help, there are circumstances when you should suggest other resources:

  • You are not comfortable handling the situation
  • The help necessary is not your expertise
  • Personality differences may interfere with your ability to help
  • You know the student personally (friend, neighbor, friend of a friend) and think you may not be objective enough to help
  • The student is reluctant to discuss the situation with you
  • You see little progress in the student
  • You feel overwhelmed or pressed for time

How to Make a Referral

  • Be frank with the student about the limits of your ability, expertise, and/or objectivity
  • Let the student know that you think she/he should get assistance from an appropriate resource
  • Assure them that many students seek help over the course of their college careers
  • Assist the student in choosing the best resource
  • Try to help the student know what to expect if she/he follows through on a referral

Consultation Is Available
If you have concerns about a student, counselors at the Counseling center are available for consultation

The University Counseling Center
Any student may use the services of the professional counselors at the center, at no charge. Students are encouraged to make their own appointments, if possible. In urgent situations, we will assist the student immediately.

At the student's first visit to the Center, information and consent forms will be filled out prior to the session. During the first appointment, the counselor will begin to assess the student's needs and to determine the most effective interventions. Options may include counseling at the Center and/or a referral to another provider.

Counseling sessions are completely confidential, and due to ethical and legal restraints, cannot be shared with anyone without written permission from the student, except in circumstances of threats of harm to self or others, as determined by the counselor.

In a Level 1 or 2 situation (emotional distress but no danger):
For students who exhibit anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, or any other intense emotional disturbance, and for whom no immediate harm seems likely, call, or have the student call:

Counseling Center: 215-717-6630
Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Gershman Hall, Room 307
401 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA

Brian Hainstock, Director of Counseling:  215-717-6614
Karen Eubank, Counselor:  215-717-6622
Janet Sokoloff, Counselor:  215-717-6626
LeeAnn Kinney, Health Center Coordinator: 215-717-6652/6230

In An Emergency Situation—Level 3 (dangerous, disruptive or bizarre behaviors)

For emergencies that occur during office hours: A) contact the Counseling Center at 215-717-6630, or B) call Gina Gugliemi, Coordinator of Student Services, at 215-717-6617 and she will contact a counselor immediately, or C) ask any Public Safety Officer to page a counselor for emergency assistance, or D) call Public Safety at 215-717-6666.

Never leave a student alone when they are in crisis; ask someone else to call the Counseling Center at 215-717-6630 or Public Safety at 215-717-6666, or ask any Public Safety Officer to contact the Counseling Center or page a counselor. If no one is available to make a call for you, have the student accompany you to a phone, Public Safety station, etc.

For UArts students experiencing a psychiatric emergency outside of office hours, call 911 or go to a local hospital emergency room. In the Philadelphia Center City area, a nearby facility is:

Hall-Mercer Center (of Pennsylvania Hospital)
245 South Eighth Street (between Locust and Spruce Streets)

For additional local facilities, see Emergencies.

24-Hour Suicide and Crisis Hotline


Portions of this page were taken, with permission, from "Tips for Faculty on Recognizing and Dealing with Students in Emotional Distress," published and copyrighted by the Counseling-Psychological Services Center, a component of the Division of Student Affairs, University of Texas, Austin, and from the Center for Health and Counseling at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.