Helping Troubled Students

Conflicts with troubled students can happen when you least expect them. From a student angry about a bad grade to a one who comes to you for help with a personal problem, it’s wise to be prepared. Your response could significantly affect the student’s ability to constructively deal with the problem.

One way to be prepared is to be aware of behaviors that may indicate a student is in trouble. Sometimes grades and attendance can provide clues. If an undergraduate student repeatedly requests special allowances for late work or absences, begins receiving unaccountably poor grades or misses classes when attendance was not previously a problem, your student may be in trouble. Other times, emotional responses such as highly disruptive
behavior, an exaggerated or inappropriate emotional response or a marked change in personal hygiene can signal a problem. Dr. Robert Portnoy, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, lists some of the more prevalent signs of someone in distress. This list is intended to provide basic information only.

• Depression. While we all may feel depressed from time to time, “normal” depressions may consist of only one or two symptoms and usually pass within days. Clinically depressed students will exhibit multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms are sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, withdrawal, poor hygiene, loss of self-esteem and preoccupation with death. 

• Agitation or acting out. Departuresfrom normal or socially appropriate behavior might include disruptiveness, restlessness or hyperactivity, antagonism, and an increase in alcohol and/or drug abuse.

• Disorientation. Some distressed students may seem “out of it.” They may exhibit a diminished awareness of what is going on around them, forgetfulness, misperception of facts or reality, rambling or disconnected speech, and behavior that seems out of context or bizarre.

• Drug and alcohol abuse. Signs of intoxication during class or interaction with university officials are indicative of a problem that requires attention.

• Suicidal thoughts. Most people who attempt suicide communicate early messages about their distress. These messages can range from “I don't want to be here,” to a series of vague “goodbyes,” to “I'm going to kill myself.” Non-verbal messages could include giving away valued items and putting legal, financial and academic affairs in order. All of the above messages should be taken seriously.

• Violence and aggression. You may become aware of students who may be dangerous to others, manifested by physically violent behavior, verbal threats, threatening e-mail or letters, harassing or stalking behavior, or papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material.

Knowing what to look for can help you identify a troubled student. But what should you do when he or she does come to you for help?

Most situations can be handled by talking to the student away from other disturbances, giving the student your undivided attention and staying in control of your emotions. Let the student know you are listening, and convey support by summarizing what the student says.

While you aren’t expected to be a “watchdog” or provide a thorough assessment, you may be the first contact for a student in distress and in a position to ask a few questions. According to Dr. Portnoy, following these guidelines can lead to a positive outcome for all parties.

• Safety first! Always keep safety in mind as you interact with a distressed student. Maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. If danger to you or the student seems imminent, call the UNL Police Department at 472-2222.

• Avoid escalation. Distressed students can sometimes be easily provoked. Avoid threatening, humiliating and intimidating responses. It is
usually not a good idea to “pull rank” and assert authority unless you are certain of the student's mental health status. Distressed students need you to listen and affirm their feelings. You can always remind them of the rules at a later time.

• Ask direct questions. Take a calm and matter-of-fact approach. Ask students directly if they are drunk, confused or if they have thoughts of harming themselves. You need not be afraid to ask these questions. You will not be “putting ideas in their heads” by doing so. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.

• Do not assume you are being manipulated. While it is true that some students appear distressed in order to get attention or relief from responsibility, only a thorough assessment can determine this. Attention-seekers can have serious problems and be in danger, too.

• Know your limits. You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and referring them for further help. Some students will, however, need much more than you can provide. Accept that you may not be out of your depth and facilitate an appropriate referral. Some signs that you may have over-extended yourself include: Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation, feeling angry at the student, feeling afraid, having thoughts of “adopting” or otherwise rescuing the student, or reliving similar experiences of your own.

When a student trusts you enough to come to you with problems, this does not mean you should provide ongoing counseling. The best outcomes are likely to occur when you refer the student to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS; 472-7450) for an appointment during office hours. Again, if you ever feel that you, the student or other students are in danger, call 472-2222 for the University Police immediately.

If you have concerns about a student or just don’t know how to approach a specific situation, contact CAPS for a consultation at 472-7450.