Identifying and Referring the Emotionally Distressed Student:

A Brief Guide for Faculty and Staff

Most college students will encounter personal, social, and academic stresses during their educational experience.  Many stresses are transient and most students successfully manage the demands and changes of college life successfully.  However, some demands can become persistent, overwhelming, and unmanageable for some students.  Students with few immediate social or family supports may be particularly vulnerable (i.e., International Students) and unable to manage the demands of life in a college setting.

Academic advisors, faculty, and residential life staff are often the first to be aware of a student in distress and may be a student’s first point of contact for receiving support, guidance, and/or referral. 

Identifying a Distressed Student

A student should be referred to either the University Counseling Service or Student Health Service whenever you believe their difficulty has gone beyond their capacity to manage the situation, and beyond your own experience and expertise to help.  Such a referral may likely be brought on by a change in a student’s behavior and/or declining academic performance.  Examples may include:

  • Change in personal hygiene
  • Deterioration in test performance, quality/quantity of written work or class participation, excessive absences
  • Bizarre speech/behaviors
  • Loss of interest, apathy, emotional outbursts, crying
  • Withdrawal from usual social interactions
  • Agitation, restlessness, aggressive comments
  • Relationship difficulties/conflicts
  • Excessive demands or dependency on faculty or staff
  • Traumatic loss of a friend or family member
  • Suicidal comments (verbal or in writing)


References to Suicide

Suicide was the third leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, and the second leading killer in the college population in 1998.  According to a UCLA survey of college freshman, college students are feeling more overwhelmed and stressed than fifteen years ago. Over 30% of college freshman report feeling overwhelmed much of the time.

A survey conducted by the American College Health Association indicated that 9.5% of 16,000 students surveyed have seriously contemplated suicide and 1.5% had made a suicide attempt.

Distinguishing between a "theoretical" discussion of suicide and the personal anguish of "not knowing if life is worth living" can often be difficult.  If you’re uncertain about a student’s intentions, you may simply ask them to clarify their thoughts to you.  You will not be “putting ideas” into the minds of students by discussing the topic of suicide in a frank and open manner.  If in doubt, calling the University Counseling Service for consultation is highly encouraged.  An IMMEDIATE referral is necessary if in your conversation with the student, the how, when, and/or the where of the suicide is discussed.  In these situations you may want to escort the student to our office, or one of our staff will come to your office to meet with you and the student.



References to Alcohol/Drug Abuse

The U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) have identified binge drinking among college students as a major public health problem in this country.  Results from the highly publicized Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (2001) reveal that 44% of college students nationwide report binge drinking (a binge is defined as consuming 5 or more drinks for males and 4 or more drinks for females in one sitting).

Students who engage in high-risk drinking (more than four drinks in a sitting) are at the most risk for negative consequences such as academic problems, blackouts, injuries, legal and disciplinary sanctions, driving or biking under the influence, and unplanned or unprotected sex in connection with their drinking.

In addition, college and university surveys across the country indicate the percentage of college students who used various other drugs within the past year were as follows: marijuana (32.3 percent); amphetamines (6.5 percent); hallucinogens (7.5 percent); cocaine (3.7 percent); and designer drugs such as Ecstasy (3.6 percent).  Often, illicit drugs have been factors in many tragedies, including date rape crimes, hospitalizations for overdoses, and deaths. 

Some college students develop problems with alcohol or drug use. Here are some of the warning signs:

  • Blackouts
  • High tolerance for alcohol or other drugs
  • Family history of alcohol or other drug problems
  • Loss of control and inability to predict behavior when under the influence
  • Interference with school/work performance or attendance
  • Turning to alcohol or drugs in response to emotional ups and downs
  • Complaints from friends or family about using, or suggestions to cut down
  • Legal or financial problems

Support, information, education, and referral are available to students at University Counseling Services, 225 Whitesitt Hall.  Appointments can be made by calling 620-235-4044.


How to Assist a Student in Emotional Distress

  1. Be available, listen carefully, and talk with your advisees. Make the necessary effort to communicate and connect with the student.  Your expression of concern and interest can be critical in helping a student find hope in their situation as well as accept your recommendation that they might benefit from mental health or medical services.
  2. When you meet with a student, put aside all other work in order to give him or her full attention.
  3. Pay attention and communicate acceptance of the student.  Communicate in an "adult-adult" manner rather than resorting to a “parental” or "superior-subordinate" approach.
  4. If appropriate, helping the student clarify what might be causing their distress, the impact it’s having on their life here at PSU, and discussing what they have attempted to do to manage their situation can be helpful.
  5. Encourage the student to assume responsibility for managing their situation.  Encourage them to think of coping methods that have been effective in the past or which might be useful in coping with the current stressors.
  6. Take the time to follow-up with the student.  Do so in an interested, concerned and adult-adult manner.
  7. If at follow-up the student has made no progress managing their current situation, they may need a referral to the University Counseling Service, Student Health Service, or other appropriate agency on or off campus.

How to Make a Referral to University Counseling Services

A student should be referred whenever you believe their difficulties have gone beyond their capacity to cope with the situation, and beyond your own ability to be helpful. 

Some students will initially find some relief when provided with the opportunity to discuss their concerns.  However, other students may feel more comfortable talking with a third party.  For non-emergent situations, it may be best to call University Counseling Services on behalf of the student while they are still in your office.  The student can then be given an appointment and any further instructions.  If you have more serious concerns about a student’s willingness or ability to follow through with an appointment, it may be best to walk the student to the UCS office.  For students who prefer off-campus resources, additional names and numbers are presented below.

If you would like to discuss any general or specific student concerns, please contact us at 620-235-4452 or stop by the University Counseling Service, Bryant Student Health Center at 1801 S. Broadway.  Our office hours are Monday - Friday, 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.   For emergency assistance, call 911. 

Additional resources include:

  • Crawford County Mental Health Center    620-231-5141 or 232-SAVE (7283)
  • Via Christi Behavioral Health              620-231-1068

Steven B. Mayhew, Ph.D., ABPP
Director, University Counseling Services
Bryant Student Health Center
1701 South Broadway · Pittsburg, KS 66762
Phone: (620)235-4452 · Fax: (620)235-6146