Faculty members, because of their close contact with students, are in a unique position to notice students who might be distressed and struggling. An expression of interest and concern from the right person at the right time can make all the difference in the world. College could be, at different points, exciting, overwhelming, challenging and stressful. Ideally that stress is balanced with support, in the forms of teaching, advising, friendship, mentorship and other kinds of help. The vast majority of students with psychological difficulties will be able to have successful and productive academic careers, with appropriate support services. We offer the following guidelines about helping students:
How to help
- Trust your gut. If you experience a sense of unease or concern about a student, it is important to pay attention to your inner signals.
- Use your common sense. You don’t need to be able to officially diagnose someone with Major Depression to know that they are in trouble.
- Listen carefully. It takes time and close attention to determine that the student who comes in talk about changing their major also wants to talk about their sense of confusion and/or isolation at Western. Sometimes important information will emerge over time as the student begins to know and trust you.
- Intervene sooner rather than later. It is tempting to hope that difficult situations will resolve themselves. Some do, but in our experience, early intervention is both easier and more effective.
- Consult with colleagues. As more college students appear to be suffering from more serious types of mental illnesses, they will present with more acute needs, more overwhelming symptoms and more complicated family and life circumstances. We all need support and help to work with these students. The Counseling Center encourages and welcomes calls and contacts from faculty members about situations of concerns.
When to Refer
Any of the following signals would be reasonable grounds for suggesting to a student that he or she come in to the Counseling Center for an initial consultation. The Counseling Center is located on the second floor of The Student Center. We are open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Our services are confidential and free of charge to all full-time and part-time matriculated Western students. Students are welcome to call (203-837-8690) or stop by to set up an initial appointment.
- Urgent concerns. Urgent concerns are mental health emergencies where you are worried about the student’s health and safety or the health and safety of others. Examples include any clear threat of violence to others, severe confusion, disorientation or hallucinations, and an inability to take care of the basic tasks of daily life, such as eating and hygiene. Another clearly urgent situation is when a student expresses some intent to hurt him- or herself. Most, but not all, individuals who attempt suicide make some communication about their state of mind before acting. These types of communications can range from direct threats to kill themselves, “goodbye letters” and giving away possessions, to vague statements about life not being worth living. Any communication about suicide or potential for self-harm should be taken very seriously. While the types of situations listed above are not frequent, they do require immediate intervention. You can contact the Counseling Center at (203)837-8690. If this occurs after hours please call 911 or contact the campus police.
- Marked behavior changes. These types of changes might include withdrawal from a student who is typically very engaged in class, excessive tardiness, exaggerated emotional responses that are not appropriate in a classroom context or high levels of anxiety that interfere with academic performance. While it is normal for stress to occasionally interfere with a student’s academic life, if the interference stretches out over more than two weeks, or if it involves a dramatic drop in performance or presentation, intervention is definitely warranted. Your own nagging sense of concern about a student or a sense that “something is not quite right” is a potentially important indicator here as well.
- You feel over your head. Different faculty members will have varying levels of comfort discussing more personal issues with students. However, if you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again with a student, if you find yourself feeling stressed out or overwhelmed about the situation they are describing to you, if you feel angry or afraid of the student or if you find yourself wanting to adopt or rescue the student, you have probably overextended yourself. Professional staff at the Counseling Center can help you sort through the situation, determine what is most appropriate and helpful and consult with you about various options.
How to Talk with Students about Your Observations and Concerns
If you have contact with a student that you believe may benefit from professional assistance, the following suggestions can make that conversation, or series of conversations, as productive as possible.
- Communicate in private. If you can, set aside time during office hours or after class to speak with a student. Doing so maximizes the chances that you will actually be able to help the student talk about what is most important and also communicates to the student that you take their situation seriously.
- Try not to beat around the bush. Use simple and direct language to let the student know that you are worried about them. Often, listing the different changes you have observed and their impact on the student’s classroom performance is a good way to start the conversation. Describing the problems in behavioral terms will avoid sounding judgmental and it may mean the student will be less defensive and more receptive. It’s hard to argue or avoid the facts. “I notice you have been missing a lot of classes lately” or “you have stopped contributing to class discussion” or “I wanted to talk with you about what you wrote in your last journal entry” are potentially good opening statements. Most distressed students will be relieved and appreciative that someone has noticed them.
- When in doubt, listen. Typically, in situations where individuals are suffering and struggling, it is tempting to rush in to reassure, advise, diagnose or “fix” the problem. Often, however, such actions can seem premature, condescending or ill-fitting. It is usually more helpful to be a sympathetic sounding board, someone who can help a student discuss their situation in a mature and considered way.
- Know some facts about the Counseling Center. Giving students concrete information about our services makes accessing help easier. Many students can be hesitant about seeing a therapist, so your positive and matter-of-fact attitude can help de-stigmatize mental health services. You can let them know where we are located (second floor of The Student Center) and that a high number of Western students use our services for a range of difficulties. The Counseling Center is accessible, free of charge, and our services are confidential. We cannot share information with anyone, including information about whether a student has made an appointment with us, without that student’s permission. We can generally see students for a full initial appointment within a few business days of their coming in initially. We also have urgent appointments daily, for those students who are in crisis. If you are concerned about a student who you believe is in crisis, please call ahead and let us know that student may be coming in to see us.