Managing Students in
Distress
CAPS Workshop
Introduction
This online workshop is designed for faculty
and staff of Mercer University for the purpose
of providing some very basic knowledge and
tools for assisting students in distress. This
workshop offers straightforward advice,
techniques and suggestions on how to cope
with, intervene, and assist troubled and/or
difficult students in or out of the classroom.
Characteristics of Troubled Students
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Persistent feelings of depression, confusion or
being upset are signs of troubled students
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Three levels of student behavior
Characteristics of Troubled
Students: Level One
Behaviors may not be troublesome to others, but they
may signal that the student is upset about something:
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Extremely poor academic performance, or a change from
high to low grades
Excessive absences, especially if prior class attendance was
good
Unusual or noticeably changed interaction patterns in the
classroom
Depressed or apathetic mood, excessive activity or
talkativeness, crying, noticeable change in appearance and
hygiene, alcohol on the breath
Missed tests, or inability to remain awake in class
Characteristics of Troubled
Students: Level Two
Behaviors may signify a high amount of
emotional distress that needs to be addressed on
a personal, as well as, academic level:
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Repeated attempts to obtain deadline extensions or
postpone tests.
New or continuous behavior which disrupts your
class or student interactions.
Inappropriate or exaggerated emotional reactions to
situations, including a lack of emotional response to
stressful events.
Characteristics of Troubled
Students: Level Three
Behaviors indicating a
student in crisis and needing
emergency care:
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Violent or other extremely
disruptive behavior
Obvious loss of contact with
reality
Disturbed speech or
communication content
Suicidal or other selfdestructive thoughts or
actions
Homicidal threats
Guidelines to follow when
you encounter a student in
crisis:
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Remain calm
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Call the appropriate agency
(make sure someone is with
the student while calls are
being made)
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Stay with the student until
help arrives.
Violence and the Verbally Aggressive
Student
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Violence: "To use force so as
to injure or damage;
roughness in action; to
outrage, to force, to injure..."
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REMAIN CALM; get help if
necessary (send a student for
other staff/faculty/Chair/Public
Safety).
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Violence, as a result of
emotional distress, is rare
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STAY SAFE (have access to a
door, keep furniture/desk
between you and the student).
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Typically occurs when at an
intense level of frustration,
or of such an enduring nature
as to erode all of the
student's emotional controls
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DO NOT THREATEN,
CORNER, OR TOUCH THE
STUDENT. The adage, "An
ounce of prevention is worth a
pound of cure," best applies
here.
Violence and the Verbally Aggressive
Student
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Aggression: "To attack, to go to, to commit the first
act of hostility or offense...to assault first or to
invade..."
Students usually become verbally abusive in
frustrating situations they perceive as being beyond
their control
It is important to remember that, for the most part, the
student is not angry with you personally, but at
his/her world and that you are the object of pent-up
frustrations.
Violence and the Verbally Aggressive
Student
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Helpful To:
Acknowledge his/her anger
and frustration
Rephrase what he/she is
saying and identify the
emotion
Reduce stimulation, invite
the person to a quiet place, if
this is comfortable.
Be directive and firm about
behaviors you will accept.
Allow him/her to vent, get
the feelings out, and tell you
what is upsetting him/her.
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Not Helpful To:
Ignore warning signs
Get into an argument or
shouting match.
Become hostile or punitive
yourself
Press for explanations for
their behavior.
Make threats or dares.
Depressed Student
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Depression is part of a natural emotional and physical
response to life's ups and downs
Most students will experience periods of reactive (or
situational) depression in their college careers.
When the depressive symptoms become so EXTREME
or enduring that they begin to interfere with the
student's ability to function in school, work, or social
environment, then the student will come to your
attention and be in need of assistance.
Students experiencing depression often respond well to
a small amount of attention for a short period of time.
Early intervention increases the chances of the
student's return to previous performance
Depressed Student
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Indicators:
Tearfulness/general emotionality
Markedly diminished performance
Infrequent class attendance
Lack of energy/motivation
Increased anxiety (generalized, test, performance, etc.)
Irritability
Deterioration in personal hygiene
Significant weight loss or gain
Alcohol or drug use
Extreme mood swings of emotional highs & lows
Depressed Student
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Helpful To:
Let the student know
you're aware that he/she
is feeling down and you
would like to help.
Reach out more than
halfway and encourage
the student to discuss
how she/he is feeling.
Offer options to further
investigate/manage the
symptoms of
depression.
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Not Helpful To:
Minimize the student's
feelings
Bombard the student
with "fix it" solutions or
advice
Be afraid to ask whether
the student is suicidal if
you think she/he may be
Suicidal Student
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Indicators
Sleeping much more and later than used to
Not sleeping well and waking up early
Taking lots of naps
Appetite has changed so that the student is not hungry
or overeats
Withdrawing from friends and family
Not attending class
Expresses hopelessness or guilt
Sudden mood or behavior changes
Giving possessions away
Expresses that life isn't worth the trouble
Suicidal Student
Areas that the Counseling Center is adept at exploring
with students who are depressed and have some
level of suicidal ideation:
1.
Do they have a well-developed plan that includes an
easily available method?
2.
Have they attempted before?
3.
Has a friend, family member or acquaintance taken
their life through suicide?
4.
Do they use substances such as alcohol and other
depressants that also can weaken impulse control?
Suicidal Student
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Helpful To:
Talk about suicide
openly and directly
Be confident, caring
and know the resources
available
Take charge and bring
the student to the
Counseling Center
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Not Helpful To:
Get too involved with
the student
Ignore comments like,
"I won't be a problem
much longer” or
“Nothing matters; it's no
use"
Be too busy to intervene
Listen to the small voice inside that says, "Something isn't right with this student. "
Student in Poor Contact with Reality
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Difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality
Typically illogical, confused, or irrational thinking
Incongruent or inappropriate emotional responses
Bizarre and disturbing behaviors
Student may experience hallucinations, often auditory, and may
report hearing voices (e.g., someone is/will harm or control them).
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Symptoms can be indicative of a variety of concerns such as, substance use,
schizophrenia, delusional disorder, etc.
Average age of onset for schizophrenic disorders is within the typical college
age range
WHILE THIS STUDENT MAY ELICIT ALARM OR FEAR FROM
OTHERS, THEY GENERALLY ARE NOT DANGEROUS OR
VIOLENT.
If you cannot make sense of their conversation, try to consult with or
refer to the Counseling Center as soon as possible.
Student in Poor Contact with Reality
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Helpful To:
Respond with warmth and
kindness. Use firm reasoning.
Remove extra stimulation
from the environment
Acknowledge your concerns
and verbalize that they need
help
Acknowledge their feelings
or fears without supporting
the misperceptions
Acknowledge your difficulty
in understanding them and
ask for clarification
Focus on the "here and now"
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Not Helpful To:
Argue or try to convince
them of the irrationality of
their thinking (this
commonly produces a
stronger defense of the false
perception).
Play along!
Encourage further discussion
of the delusional processes
Demand, command, or order
them to do something to
change their perceptions
Expect customary emotional
responses
Anxious Student
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Anxiety is a normal
response to a perceived
danger or threat to one's
well being.
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In some students the cause
of anxiety is clear but it
may be difficult to pinpoint
in other students.
It is important to
distinguish true anxiety
from normal stress.
One or more of the following
symptoms may be experienced:
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rapid heartbeat,
chest pain or discomfort
dizziness
sweating
trembling or shaking
cold clammy hands
difficulty concentrating
always being "on edge"
having difficulty making decisions
sleeping problems
Being too fearful to take action
In more rare cases, a student may
experience a panic attack in which the
physical symptoms occur
spontaneously and intensely in such a
way that the student may fear she/he is
dying.
Anxious Student
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Helpful To:
Let them discuss their
feelings and thoughts.
Often this alone relieves
a great deal of pressure.
Provide reassurance.
Talk slowly and remain
calm.
Be clear and directive.
Provide a safe and quiet
environment until the
symptoms subside.
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Not Helpful To:
Minimize the perceived
threat to which the
student is reacting.
Take responsibility for
their emotional state.
Overwhelm them with
information or ideas to
"fix" their condition.
Become anxious or
overwhelmed.
Suspicious Student
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Usually these students complain about something other
than their psychological difficulties.
They are tense, cautious, mistrustful, and have few friends.
These students tend to interpret a minor oversight as
significant personal rejection and often overreact to
insignificant occurrences.
They see themselves as the focal point of everyone's
behavior and everything that happens has special meaning.
Usually overly concerned with fairness and being treated
equally.
Project blame on others and will express anger indirectly.
Many times they will feel worthless and inadequate.
Suspicious Student
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Helpful To:
Send clear, consistent messages
regarding what you are willing
to do and what you expect
Express compassion without
being overly friendly or
familiar
Be aware of personal
boundaries and space when
interacting
Be aware of your own anxiety
about how the student is acting
or communicating
Let the student know that you
are concerned
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Not Helpful To:
Be overly warm or
sympathetically close to the
student
Flatter the student, laugh with
them or be humorous
Assure the student that you are
their friend or advocate
Assure them that you will be fair
in your treatment of them
Student Under the Influence
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Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug.
Preferred drug on college campuses, common to
find students who abuse alcohol also abusing other
drugs, both prescription and illegal.
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Fads and peer pressure effect patterns of use.
1999 national study conducted by Harvard School of
Public Health determined that 44% of college
students engage in binge drinking, which is defined
as five drinks in a row (four for women).
Student Under the Influence
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Consuming alcohol in large quantities quickly can be
lethal.
Other adverse effects include:
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Hangovers, hospitalization for alcohol overdose, poor
academic performance, missing classes, injury, and
unprotected sexual activity
Prevention strategies have not been very effective in
reducing the amount of binge drinking.
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This may be due to its glamorization at fraternity parties and
local bars, which promote happy hours, all-you-can-drink
specials, weeknight discounts, and ladies' nights.
Student Under the Influence
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The effects of alcohol on the user are well known
Faculty often identify student alcohol abuse when
irresponsible, unpredictable behavior affects learning
situation or a combination of the health and social
impairments associated with alcohol abuse sabotages
student performance.
41% of all academic problems stem from alcohol abuse
28% of students drop out because of alcohol.
Because of the denial that exists in most substance
abusers, it is important to express your concern about the
student in terms of specific changes in behavior or
performance (not your suspicions about alcohol/drugs).
Student Under the Influence
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Helpful To:
Confront the student with the
behavior that is of concern.
Address the substance abuse
issue if the student is open
and willing.
Offer support and concern for
the student's overall wellbeing.
Suggest that the student talk
with someone about these
issues and maintain contact
with the student after a
referral is made.
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Not Helpful To:
Convey judgment or
criticism about the student's
substance abuse.
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Make allowances for the
student's irresponsible
behavior.
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Ignore signs of intoxication
in the classroom.
Student Who Has Been Sexually
Assaulted
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Rates for sexual assault in this country remain alarmingly
high.
Recent research suggests that the rate for women who will
be sexually assaulted is actually 1 in 3.
Rate for men who will be sexually assaulted is 1 in 10.
Women are 3 times more likely to be sexually assaulted
during the college-aged years (18-22) than any other time in
their life.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of rapes/sexual
assaults are not committed by strangers.
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About 80% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by assailants known
to the victim. Thus, their feelings of being violated and traumatized
are exacerbated by feelings of betrayal and confusion.
Student who has been Sexually
Assaulted
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The sexual assault victim will have physical
and emotional needs.
The individual may have been injured (e.g
vaginal tears, bruising, etc), contracted a
sexually transmitted disease, or impregnated.
The student can be treated for all of these
without pressing charges/filing a police
report.
Emotional effects may take longer to emerge.
Student who has been Sexually
Assaulted
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Another complicating issue for sexual assault victims is the
decision of whether or not to report the crime to the police.
More than any other crime, sexual assault is a violation of
the victims' body and sense of personal safety. Victims are
often reluctant to press charges for fear that they will be
further opened to scrutiny by peers, family, the community,
etc.
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It is important to let victims know that a report to the police
does not mean they must press charges. It simply leaves the
door open to pressing charges later. Further, a victim can
receive counseling, and/or medical attention without
pressing charges.
Student who has been Sexually
Assaulted
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The rape/sexual assault victim may experience any number
of reactions.
Reactions may occur immediately, or may emerge as time
goes on.
It is common for victims to re-experience many reactions
on, or near, the anniversary of the event, or when exposed
(such as through the news, etc.) to a similar event.
Some common reactions: numbness, headaches, nightmares,
anxiety, sleeplessness, sexual inhibition, distrust of others,
guilt, shame, anger, feeling "dirty", denial, withdrawal from
others, relationship conflict, flashbacks, fear of being alone,
or difficult concentrating.
This list is not exhaustive; there is no "one" way a victim
will react.
Student who has been Sexually
Assaulted
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Helpful To:
Be supportive
Communicate that the
victim is not responsible for
the violation
Allow the victim to regain
their control by making
his/her own decisions
Inform the victim of
available services and offer
to contact these services, or
accompany the student to
the Counseling
Center/Health Services
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Not Helpful To:
Encourage/seek retribution
Ask the victim how he/she
"let" this happen or
encouraged the victimization
Express your anger toward the
assailant
Pressure the victim to make a
report
Assume that you know how
the victim feels, even if you
have had a similar experience
Students Experiencing Trauma
Related Stress
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Individuals who have experienced a traumatic
event oftentimes suffer psychological stress
related to the incident.
In most instances, these are normal reactions to
abnormal situations.
While some students may be able to cope
effectively on their own, others may not.
Students Experiencing Trauma
Related Stress
Normal Reactions Immediately Following a Traumatic Event
 Stunned, Numb, Confused
 Bewildered
 Impaired reasoning
 Agitated
 Perspiring
 Trembling
 Feeling weak
 Nauseous
 Intense anxiety
 Weeping, screaming
 Distracted
 Stoic
Students Experiencing Trauma
Related Stress
Strategies that can help alleviate the emotional pain that students
may feel during trauma or crisis:
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Make personal contact (Ask name and offer your name)
Provide place for people to gather and share information and support
Help with physical comfort (water, hot drink, snacks, etc. can feel
nurturing and supportive)
Provide information if you have accurate source. If possible help
student get in touch with family (offer office phone if possible)
Listen carefully to what students have to say.
Don't take their frustrations or other feelings personally.
Don't tell the student that "You're lucky it wasn't worse." Convey your
understanding and empathy of their experience.
Allow the student to have some time to himself/herself.
Encourage the use of friends/family and other support networks.
Link to follow-up services (Counseling Center, Health Center, etc.)
Students Experiencing Trauma
Related Stress
Longer term issues:
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Traumatic events can affect an individual's "world
view." After the initial shock phase, they may wish to
talk about how things are different.
They may feel less safe and more vulnerable.
The unpredictability of life can overwhelm and leave
one feeling despondent or "what's the use."
People may need to rebuild their assumptions about
the world and their place in it.
This is challenging, even frightening, but with the
proper support people can usually work things out.
Students Experiencing Trauma
Related Stress
Warning Signs of Trauma Related Stress
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Recurring thoughts or nightmares
about the event.
Trouble sleeping or changes in
appetite.
Experiencing anxiety and fear,
especially when exposed to events
or situations reminiscent of the
trauma.
Being on edge, easily startled or
becoming overly alert.
Feeling depressed, sad, and having
low energy.
Experiencing memory problems
including difficulty in
remembering aspects of the
trauma.
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Feeling "scattered" and unable to
focus on work or daily activities.
Difficulty making decisions.
Feeling irritable, easily agitated, or
angry and resentful.
Feeling emotionally "numb,"
withdrawn, disconnected or
different from others.
Spontaneously crying, feeling a
sense of despair and hopelessness.
Feeling extremely protective of, or
fearful for, the safety of loved ones.
Not being able to face certain
aspects of the trauma, and avoiding
activities, places, or even people
that remind you of the event.
Conclusion
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We hope you have found this online workshop to be
helpful. If you have questions, concerns, or you need
further information about these or other topics, please
contact us at CAPS (x2862).
Please remember that you do not have to handle
troublesome situations with students on your own.
CAPS' psychologists are available to consult with you
or otherwise offer assistance.
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Characteristics of Troubled Students