As a staff or faculty member, you may be the first person students turn to when they need help. You are also in an excellent position to recognize certain distress signals that indicate the possible presence of emotional trouble or pending crisis. Your role in expressing concern and assisting a student in getting help can be quite significant in his or her life.
This referral guide includes information on the following topics:
- recognizing some signs of student distress
- how to reach out to struggling students
- making referrals to our office
- when to consult with us
- basic crisis procedures
- confidentiality and its limits
HOW CAN WE HELP YOU
Cedarville University Counseling Services is available to help you with students in distress, both by consulting with you about the best course of action and by working directly with the student once a referral has been made. Some students will come directly to you because they see you as someone they trust – someone who cares about their well-being and with whom they feel safe. Many times, the conversation(s) with you will be of great benefit to the student and will meet his or her needs.
In some cases, however, you may feel that you do not have the time or expertise to provide all the assistance the student needs. In these situations, knowing what to look for and how to address it with a student can be important.
IDENTIFYING STUDENTS IN DISTRESS
Sometimes, students may demonstrate unusual, disturbing, or markedly changed behavior in or out of your classroom that causes you to feel concerned about them. A student in distress may be first identified because of changes in behavior, attitude, or academic performance. These changes may be quick and dramatic, or they may involve slow but steady deterioration over time. Because it is normal for all students to have periods of time where they are less participatory in class, feel depressed or anxious, or experience a decline in academic performance, it may be helpful to watch for an overall change in the student’s normal patterns rather than react to an isolated change. That said, any talk of death or suicide should be addressed immediately, even if it is an isolated incident.
Changes to Watch for:
- Excessive absences from class
- Multiple requests for special consideration in the absence of supporting data (e.g. extensions on assignments or accommodations for class lectures without a documented learning or other disability)
- Failure to turn in assignments or take tests
- Changes in class participation
- Decline in academic performance
- Failure to keep scheduled appointments with you
- Dramatic changes in weight or physical appearance (including personal hygiene)
Unusual or New Mood/Behaviors
- Outbursts or other disruptive behaviors
- Excessively rapid speech or increased activity level
- Tangential or irrelevant speech/writing
- Social or interpersonal withdrawal
- High levels of anxiety, sadness, stress, or despair
- Frequent requests or demands for your time
- Poor academic performance
- Complaints of inability to concentrate
- Multiple physical complaints
- Excessive exercise habits
- Sleeping in class
Isolation and/or References to Death
- Overt or covert references to suicide
- Evidence of a suicide plan
- Preoccupation with death themes
- References to/preoccupation with violence
- Homicidal or other threatening statements, whether verbal or written
- Intentional isolation from family or friends
- Perception of having no support network
- Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, despair
- Evidence of serious loss (death, divorce)
- Indication of drug or excessive alcohol use
INTERVENTION and REFERRAL
If you notice these or other alarming behaviors, you may wish to approach the student for whom you have concern. Healthy boundaries during this part of the process are very important. You can play a powerful, ministering role in speaking Truth and showing grace to a hurting student. At the same time, it is not your responsibility to “save” the student or take ownership of his or her problems. Healthy boundaries allow you to use discernment about when the student’s needs exceed your ability to meet them, and they allow you to connect the student with professional help without feeding the lie that you are not doing “enough” for him or her. Additionally, it is essential that you act in ways to promote your and the student’s spiritual and emotional health during your interactions with one another. Use your position to encourage and to edify the student, not to overextend yourself or to exploit someone who is vulnerable.
To approach a student in distress, invite him or her to have a conversation at a time convenient to both of you. Select a place where there will be some privacy (but not too much isolation) for a confidential discussion. It may work best to state your concern for the student in a direct, caring, and nonjudgmental manner, such as, “I have noticed that you have seemed really withdrawn in class lately, and I’m concerned about you.” If the student chooses to respond and tells you how he or she is doing, listen carefully, giving your full attention. Students may not want to share specific details about past struggles with you, and that is normal; it is more important for them to be heard than for you to gather detailed background information. You can communicate that you are hearing the student either by paraphrasing what he or she says or reflecting the feelings that you’re hearing, (e.g. “Sounds like you really feel overwhelmed”).
It is generally best not to offer quick solutions to his or her concerns, jump to “advice giving,” etc., other than suggesting some problem solving strategies that relate to your particular course. Demonstrate respect, empathy, hope and support to the student and help him or her realize that there are resources available.
If you determine that the student needs more help than you are able to provide, you may want to point out that seeking professional help demonstrates strength, not weakness. Given students’ respect for you, and because of the stigma associated with mental or emotional struggles, this is a powerful encouragement that you are in a strong position to offer. Educating the student that hundreds of his or her peers come to Counseling Services each year may further destigmatize the choice to seek help. Additionally, reminding the student that many of the revered men and women of Scripture faced mental or emotional challenges can normalize the experience of having them. It may bring deep and needed comfort to the student to remember that the Lord does not condemn those who are hurting but instead offers mercy and healing through His work in our lives.
Tell the student what you know about Counseling Services, and let him or her know that we well positioned to provide help on campus or to make referrals off-campus. If the student decides to make an appointment with us, you might suggest that he or she call Counseling Services from your office. After an appointment is made, it is usually a good idea to reconnect with the student anytime from a day to a week later to see how he or she is doing.
When in doubt about how to talk to a student, or when you encourage a student to seek help but he or she is unready or unwilling to do so, please feel free to call us (937-766-7855). A conversation with one of our counselors may assist you in clarifying the need to intervene, determining the appropriate means of intervention, creatively problem-solving how to approach a challenging student/situation, or providing other referral options. During the academic year, we are open from 8:00 AM-5:00 PM Monday-Friday. If you are concerned that a possible disability may be interfering with a student’s work, please call The Cove (Academic Enrichment Center) at 766-7437.
AFTER HOURS EMERGENCIES OR CRISES
An emergency is a situation that is life threatening or involves imminent danger or other extreme circumstances. In these situations, call 911 immediately to access emergency services. This brings help to the student in the quickest, safest avenue possible. If a call to 911 is made, contacting Campus Safety to make the on-duty officer aware that the call was made is also helpful since the officer will likely be the first to arrive on the scene.
Counseling Services operates under ethical and legal obligations that restrict any transmission of information without the explicit and voluntary permission of the student. If a student tells us that he or she has been referred by you and wants you to be informed about their attendance or participation in counseling, we will obtain a signed Release of Information from them to facilitate communication with you. Without this document, we are unable to disclose information to you, including whether or not the student is receiving our services. We apologize in advance for any inconvenience this may pose to you. If you believe it will be helpful to do so, you may share information with us; we can receive information without violating confidentiality.
Regarding the practice of sharing information with us, we recognize that sometimes concerned individuals in students’ lives want us to know information that they are uncertain if we know. We recognize the value of communicating information to Counseling Services staff if you have concerns about a student and thus invite you to do so when you feel it is necessary. We also strongly encourage direct communication with a student about concerns you have for him or her. In sharing your concerns directly with the student rather than relaying those concerns only to us, the student is given the opportunity to hear your concerns directly from you, a process that facilitates open communication and reinforces your trustworthiness and genuine concern for the student. It also avoids a potentially problematic situation in which we have information that the student did not share with us and must then determine how to bring that up without damaging the student’s trust in us or in you. If there is ever a time where you want to talk to a student about concerns you have but are unsure of how to do so, please contact us, and we will be happy to talk with you about how to have that conversation.
Finally, there are situations in which exceptions to confidentiality exist. These include imminent suicidal/homicidal risk, circumstances involving child/dependent adult abuse and neglect, and a legal subpoena. In these cases, legal and ethical mandates require Counseling Services staff members to break confidentiality and make a report to the proper civil authorities.
Counseling Services staff members appreciate and respect the faculty and staff of Cedarville. Your wisdom, genuine care for students, and Christlike interactions with them are often shared with us. Many times you are the first person with whom a student shares a struggle or concern, and we are thankful for your willingness to walk alongside them through difficult seasons in their lives. We encourage you to read the Resources on our website, which address a variety of mental and emotional health topics. Additionally, you may find it helpful to read the Frequently Asked Questions as well.
We welcome you to consult us about a student, but we also invite you to contact us if you want to learn more about our services, speak to us about a particular student, or collaborate with us on ways we can help you support the students in your programs, offices, organizations, teams, etc. We appreciate you!