Recognizing and Assisting Students in Distress

Stress is a natural part of life and no stranger to University students. While many students successfully cope with the realities of college life, others become overwhelmed and struggle to manage. Additionally, a few students will unfortunately experience sexual assault, discrimination, hate crimes and/or sexual harassment.  

Whatever the cause of students’ distress, the emotional and behavioral consequences may be evidenced in classrooms, campus housing, or university offices. Faculty and staff members will not be able to spot every such student, and not every student you approach will accept your offer of assistance. Still, just by being available and ready to listen, you may play an important role in helping a student regain the emotional balance needed to cope with his or her circumstances and get back on track.

This information provides assistance with:

         Signs of students in distress

         General suggestions for dealing with students in distress

         Specific suggestions for responding to students regarding:

o    Alcohol or Drug Abuse

o    Sexual Assault

o    Potential Violence

o    Discrimination & Hate Crimes

         Contact information for Missouri S&T resources


NOTE: The Counseling, Disability Support, and Student Wellness staff may be reached at 573.341.4211 Monday – Friday between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for assistance. After regular office hours, you may call the Missouri S & T Police at 573.341.4300 to contact a CDSW staff member. Students may also go directly to the Emergency Department of Phelps County Regional Medical Center.


What Are The Signs Of Students In Distress?  

Marked Changes in Academic Performance or Classroom Behavior

o    Poor performance or lack of preparation

o    Excessive absences or tardiness

o    Repeated request for special consideration, especially when this represents a change from previous functioning

o    Unusual or changed pattern of interaction

o    Avoiding or dominating discussions

o    Excessive anxiety when called upon in class

o    Disruptive behavior

o    Exaggerated emotional response obviously inappropriate to the situation

Unusual Behavior or Appearance

o    Depressed or lethargic mood

o    Hyperactivity or very rapid speech

o    Unexplained crying

o    Irritability or angry outbursts

o    Swollen or red eyes

o    Change in personal hygiene or dress

o    Dramatic weight loss or gain

o    Strange or bizarre behavior

References to Suicide, Homicide or Death

o    Expressed thoughts of helplessness or hopelessness

o    Overt references to suicide

o    Isolation from friends or family

o    Homicidal threats

    What Can You Do To Help?

If you choose to approach a student about whom you’re concerned or a student reaches out to you for help with personal problems, here are some suggestions for helpful responses:

Be Available

o    Talk to the student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied.

o    Give the student your undivided attention.

o    A few minutes of patient, concerned listening may be enough to help the student feel supported and more confident about what to do.


o    Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way.

o    If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental terms. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class lately and I’m concerned.” Rather than “Where have you been lately? You should be more concerned about your grades.”


o    Let the student talk.

o    Communicate understanding by paraphrasing the essence of what the student has told you.

o    Include both content and feeling (e.g. “It sounds like you’re not accustomed to such a big campus and you’re feeling left out of things.”)

Give Hope

o    Assure the student that things will get better.

o    Help the student realize that there are options and that things will not always seem hopeless.

o    Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy, or professional help on campus.

Maintain Boundaries

o    Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations.

o    Maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student or staff/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations, exam schedules, etc.

Refer to Other Resources When:

o    The problem is more serious than you feel comfortable handling.

o    You are extremely busy, stressed, or cannot find the time to deal with the student.

o    You have helped as much as you can and further assistance is needed.

o    You think your personal feelings about the student will interfere with your objectivity.

o    The student admits that there is a problem, but doesn’t want to talk to you about it.

o    The student asks for information or assistance that you are unable to provide.



All of the previous recommendations still apply in these special circumstances, but some important aspects to keep in mind if a student shows signs of distress in the following areas.

Alcohol or Drug Problems

Additional signs of distress:

o    Smell of alcohol or marijuana on breath or clothes

o    Hand tremors

o    Watery or blood shot eyes

o    Frequent bruises, cuts or other injuries

o    Frequently missed classes

o    Continuous excuses for turning in work late or not at all

o    Extreme negativism – "don’t care" attitude

o    Bragging about the amount of alcohol or other drugs used

Helpful Strategies:

o    Show you care by meeting privately with the student to discuss your concerns in a non-judgmental, respectful fashion.

o    Address behaviors without making judgments about the person.

o    Connect your observations with behaviors such as the student’s test scores or attendance issues, and let him/her know you want him/her to succeed.

o    Know the basic facts and use them to substantiate your concern.

o    Know that alcohol and drug use impairs short-term memory, concentration, mood, motor behavior, interpersonal relationships, and academic and work performance.

o    Use referral resources: It is not your job to diagnose or to “chase” students to get help, but you can refer them to campus resources such as the CDSW(573.341.4211) to help them address a possible problem.

o    You may encounter a lot of excuses, promises to change, attempts to challenge you, attempts to change the conversation to other subjects, and attempts to pass the behavior off as “no big thing.”

If Your Conversation Does Not Result in a Referral for Treatment:

o    DO   expect to feel helpless.

o    DO  expect denial of the problem by the user.

o    DO  continue to offer caring and behaviorally specific confrontations about problematic behaviors.

o    DON'T  be discouraged, seek support.

o    DON'T  nag, preach, or lecture.

o    DON'T  make threats unless you intend to carry them out.

o    DON'T  try to protect the individual from situations in which alcohol or drugs may be available.

o    DON'T   accept statements that minimize the problematic behavior or consequences.

Be informed about typical responses

o    Immediately after the assault, most people are shocked and uncertain about what to do.

o    Common feelings include fear, confusion, guilt, distrust, shame, depression, anger, and powerlessness.

o    Other common experiences from sexual assault include painful recollections and physical complaints such as discomfort from injuries, loss of appetite, and sleep disturbances.

Provide support and comfort while protecting the student’s privacy

o    Don’t tell others without permission.

o    Let the student know that you are concerned for his/her physical and emotional safety. Communicate clearly that what happened was not the student’s fault.

o    Ask what he/she needs.

o    Let the student talk and validate his/her emotional reactions.

o    Refer the student to CDSW for information about Myths and Facts of Sexual Assault and The Aftermath of Sexual Assault

Accept the student’s choices about how he or she wants to deal with the assault.

o    Even if you disagree with the student, it is the student’s choice whether or not to report the assault and whether or not to tell family members or others.

Encourage him/her to get medical care

o    Possible injuries, infections, or pregnancy will be assessed and treated.

o    If the assault was recent, encourage the student to consider having an evidence gathering exam at the emergency room at Phelps County Regional Medical Center. This will preserve evidence should the student decide to report the assault to the police.

o    The staff members at Student Health (573.341.4284) are sensitive to the needs of students who have been assaulted or abused. Although they do not perform evidentiary exams, they can help ensure the student gets appropriate care.

o    Even if the assault occurred some time ago, it is important to have medical attention.

Encourage the student to talk to others whom he/she trusts

o    Encourage the student to seek support from family, friends, or professional counselor. Let him/her know that the CDSW (573.341.4211) and Student Health (573.341.4284) both provide free and confidential crisis management and counseling services to Missouri S&T students.

o    Provide contact information for the Missouri S&T Police (573.341.4300) or Rolla Police (573.364.1213), if the he/she expresses an interest in reporting the assault.

Responding to Threatening or Potentially Dangerous Students

A student whose behavior has become threatening, disruptive, or violent requires a different kind of approach. A very small number of students become aggressive when they are extremely frustrated by a situation that seems beyond their control. Although students rarely become violent, it does occur and it is important to know how to respond. Here are some guidelines:

If you feel uneasy about a student’s behavior

o    Respect your feelings of unease and discuss them with a colleague, your department chair, or consult with the Critical Incident Task Force or CDSW.

o    Identify exactly what is making you feel uneasy (student is rude, speaks in a loud or threatening manner, or makes threats).

o    Meet with the student and ask him/her to change the behaviors that are causing a problem.

o    Make sure that other staff or faculty members are nearby when you meet with the student.

o    Refer the student for help with whatever might be causing the problem (e.g. stress, learning difficulties, or personal problems).

If a threatening or violent situation occurs during class

o    Ask the student to accompany you to discuss the situation in the department office or somewhere where help is available.

o    Avoid being alone or isolated with the student.

o    Seek help from campus police and consult with the CDSW staff as needed.

If you are alone with an angry, verbally abusive, or physically threatening student

o    Acknowledge the student’s anger and frustration calmly; “I can see how upset you are because you feel your rights are being violated and no one is listening to you.”

o    Allow the student to vent his or her feelings and frustrations.

o    Calmly tell the student that verbally abusive behavior is unacceptable: “When you yell at me, I find it hard to listen to you.”

o    Avoid arguing, shouting, becoming hostile or threatening (e.g. “I’ll have you expelled from school.”)

o    Don’t touch the student.

o    Leave the situation, if possible.

o    Get help from campus police, who are available around the clock.

Responding to Discrimination or Hate Crimes

Sadly, university campuses are not immune to discrimination and hate crimes. Discrimination involves unfair, prejudiced treatment based on class or category rather than individual merit. Hate crimes are defined as violent acts against people, property, or organizations based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or disability. Violent acts range from verbal harassment, threats, assault and vandalism, to murder.

Students who experience discrimination or hate crimes are likely to recover more quickly when they given support and access to appropriate resources as soon as possible after the incident occurs. You can help by doing the following:

o    Give them your full attention and support.

o    Encourage the student to report the incident to the Missouri S&T police.

o    Help him or her think about a safety plan to avoid or respond to further incidents.

o    Refer the student to appropriate departments for support for example, Student Affairs (573.341.4292), the Affirmative Action Office (573.341.4241), CDSW (573.341.4211), International Affairs (573.341.4208), or Missouri S&T Police (573.341.4300).


Who Is Available at Missouri S&T to Help?

  Counseling, Disability Support, and Student Wellness (573.341.4211)

Professional counselors and psychologists provides free and confidential services to students, faculty, and staff; crisis intervention; individual and group counseling for personal, career, and academic issues; stress management; and referrals when appropriate. Disability Services staff members work collaboratively with students with disabilities to provide reasonable and appropriate accommodative services to ensure equal access to all that Missouri S&T offers. The Student Health and Wellness Educator coordinates a comprehensive wellness program for Missouri University of Science and Technology students; provides personalized confidential wellness consultations; develops and coordinates wellness and prevention initiatives based on student needs.  

What Students may expect related to CDSW services :

o    Students are encouraged to make their own appointments; you may assist by offering the use of your phone

o    In urgent situations during the week between 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., counselors are available, often times immediately, to consult with you and assist students

o    In less urgent situations, the secretary will arrange for the student to meet with a staff member as soon as possible, often within the same day.

o    Before meeting with a counselor, the student completes brief information forms online (these will be waived temporarily in emergencies)

o    The student will then talk to a counselor for a screening interview and a plan of action will be determined

o    Unless the student grants permission for the counselor to communicate with others (or is a danger to self or others) all information is kept confidential

o    NOTE: After hours, the Missouri S&T Police may be contacted for assistance in contacting the CDSW staff members. Student may also go directly to the Phelps County Regional Medical Center, Emergency Department

Student  Health (573.341.4284)

Provides medical and psychiatric services

Missouri  S&T Critical Incident Task Force (CITF) (573.341.4292)

Assesses problematic situations regarding behavior and offers intervention & consultation

Missouri S&T Campus Police (573.341.4300)