Supporting Students in Distress

Faculty and staff members are often on the front lines for students in distress. A student often views a professor as a confidant, role model, or friend. You are welcome to call University Counseling Services to consult with one of our staff about helping a student. You can reach us at (804) 828-6200.

Common Sources of Student Distress

Students will often approach a faculty or staff member about their concerns before talking to a friend or a family member. Some common problems:

  • Anxiety, Depression, and/or Stress
  • Sociopolitical climate and/or oppression toward students holding marginalized identities
  • Problems with a romantic partner or spouse
  • Academic difficulty
  • Financial concerns
  • Alcohol or drug use concerns
  • Family concerns

Signs a Student may be Experiencing Distress

A key way to recognize distress is to look for changes:

  • Sudden change in behavior
  • Changes in class attendance
  • Changes in quality of student work
  • Changes in appearance and/or grooming
  • Sleeping in class or changes in attention
  • Changes in student responsiveness

Three basic things to remember

  1. Your expression of concern may provide students the motivation they need to seek appropriate help or services.
  2. You are not responsible for the students' well-being or emotional health, nor are you responsible for whether the student seeks further support.
  3. University Counseling Services is available to consult with you about any student you are concerned about, and the staff can help the student locate appropriate assistance.

How to Approach a Student in Distress

  1. Choose a quiet, private place to talk with the student.
  2. Ask if something is wrong that the student would like to talk about.
  3. If you've noticed behavioral changes, it can be helpful to say, "I've noticed that your homework assignments aren't quite up to your usual quality lately. Are you having any personal problems that might be interfering with your work? If I can help, I'd like to."
  4. Communicate care and concern, rather than chastising the student for poor performance.
  5. Ask the student about their support system, i.e., who is available to listen to their problems.
  6. Mentioning the availability of University Counseling Services is sometimes appropriate. It can be helpful to be acquainted with the services UCS offers so you can give a brief description to students you are supporting.

What about suicidal students?

Sometimes a student will disclose that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts. These statements should be taken very seriously, and the student should be encouraged to immediately speak with a crisis clinician at University Counseling Services, who are available 24/7/365 and can be accessed by calling 804-828-6200.

If the student refuses to seek services, you can call us to help you meet the student's particular needs. If you suspect a student may be suicidal, asking will not "plant the idea" or make it more likely that the student will attempt suicide. Most often, students will be relieved that someone recognizes the extent of their pain. UCS can help you manage this type of situation. Remember that you are not responsible for the student's actions. If you are upset about a situation like this, it is equally important that you seek the support you need. University Counseling Services can help refer you to the appropriate resources if necessary.

What about violent students?

If a student threatens violence to you or to others, please contact the VCU Police immediately. Safety considerations are paramount in this type of situation.