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Types of Student Distress
The Verbally Aggressive Student
Students usually become verbally abusive in frustrating situations that they see as being beyond their control. Anger and frustration become displaced from those situations to you. These students often feel they will be rejected and, therefore, reject you first. They often realize the drama and intimidation behind their anger and are aware of their impact, yet they feel they have nothing to lose.
- Acknowledge their anger and frustration, e.g., “I hear how angry you are.”
- Rephrase what they are saying and identify their emotion, e.g., “I can see how upset you are because you feel your rights are being violated and nobody will listen.”
- Allow them to vent, get their feelings out, and tell you what is upsetting them
- Reduce stimulation; invite the person to your office or other quiet place if this is comfortable.
- Consider keeping your office door open or inviting another faculty or staff member to join you.
- Tell them that you are not willing to accept their verbally abusive behavior, e.g., “When you yell and scream at me that way, I find it hard (impossible) to listen.”
- Tell them they are violating your personal space and to please move back (if they are getting physically too close), e.g., “Please stand back; you’re too close.”
- Help the student problem solve and deal with the real issues when they become calmer.
- Get into an argument or shouting match.
- Become hostile or punitive yourself, e.g., “You can’t talk to me that way.”
- Press for explanation or reasons for their behavior – “Now I’d like you to tell me exactly why you are so obnoxious.”
- Look away and not deal with the situation.
- Give away your own rights as a faculty or staff member.
- Hesitate to call Campus Security, (540) 678-4444 if the situation escalates.
The Violent or Physically Destructive Student
Violence, because of emotional distress, is very rare and typically occurs only when the student is totally frustrated and feels there are no other options.
- Prevent total frustration and helplessness by quickly and calmly acknowledging the intensity of the situation, e.g., “I can see you’re really upset and really mean business and have some serious concerns on your mind.”
- Explain clearly and directly what behaviors are acceptable, e.g., “You certainly have the right to be angry, but screaming, hitting (breaking things) is not O.K.”
- Get necessary help such as other staff, Campus Security, (540) 678-4444.
- Stay in an open area.
- Divert attention and when all else fails, e.g., “If you hit me, I can’t be of help.”
- Ignore warning signs that the person is about to explode, e.g., yelling, screaming, clenched fists, statements like, “You’re leaving me no choice.”
- Threaten, dare, taunt, or push into a corner.
The Substance Abusing Student
Given the stresses of university life, students are especially susceptible to drug abuse. A variety of substances are available that provide escape from pressing demands. The only problem is that these drugs soon create their own set of problems in the form of addiction, accident proneness and poor health. The most abused substance is alcohol.
- Be on the alert for signs of drug abuse (preoccupation with drugs, inability to participate in class activities, deteriorating performance in class, periods of memory loss or blackouts).
- Share your honest concern for the person–Encourage him/her to seek help.
- Get necessary help in instances of intoxication, Call Counseling Center, (540) 665-4530 and/or the Blue Ridge Area Intergroup 24 hour hotline, (800) 835-6130.
- Ignore the problem.
- Chastise or lecture.
- Refer to your personal use of substances.
- Encourage the behavior.
The Student in Poor Contact with Reality
These students have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. Their thinking is typically illogical, confused, disturbed; they may coin new words, see or hear things which no one else can, have irrational beliefs, and exhibit bizarre or inappropriate behavior. Generally, these students are not dangerous and are very confused, frightened and overwhelmed.
- Respond with warmth and kindness, but with firm reasoning.
- Remove extra stimulation of the environment and see them in a quiet atmosphere (if you are comfortable in doing so).
- Acknowledge your concerns and state that you can see they need help, e.g., “It seems very hard for you to integrate all these things that are happening and I am concerned about you, I’d like to help.”
- Acknowledge the feelings or fears without supporting the misperceptions, e.g., “I understand you think they are trying to hurt you and I know how real it seems to you, but I don’t hear the voices).”
- Reveal your difficulty in understanding them (when appropriate), e.g., “I’m sorry but I don’t understand – could you repeat that or say it in a different way?”
- Focus on the “here and now” – switch topics and divert the focus from the irrational to the rational or the real.
- Speak to their healthy side, which they have – it’s O.K. to joke, laugh, or smile when appropriate.
- Refer the student to Counseling Center, (540) 665-4530.
- Argue or try to convince them of the irrationality of their thinking for it makes them defend their positions (false perceptions) more.
- Play along, e.g., “Oh yeah, I hear the voices (or see the devil).”
- Encourage further revelations of their distorted thinking.
- Demand, command, or order.
- Expect customary emotional responses.
The Suspicious Student
Typically, these students complain about something other than their psychological difficulties. They are tense, anxious, mistrustful and loners. They tend to interpret minor oversights as significant personal rejection and often overreact to insignificant occurrences. They see themselves as the focal point of everybody’s behavior and everything that happens has special meaning to them. They are overly concerned with fairness and being treated equally. Feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy underline most of their behavior. They seem capable and bright.
- Express compassion without intimate friendship – suspicious students have trouble with closeness.
- Be firm, steady, punctual, and consistent.
- Be specific and clear regarding standards of behavior you expect.
- Assure the student that you are his/her friend; agree you’re a stranger, but even strangers can be concerned.
- Be overly warm and nurturing.
- Flatter or participate in their games; you don’t know the rules.
- Be cute or humorous.
- Challenge or agree with any mistaken or illogical beliefs.
- Be ambiguous.
The Depressed Student
Epidemiological studies show that at any given time, seven percent of the general population is clinically depressed. These students show a multitude of symptoms, e.g., guilt, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and inadequacy as well as physical symptoms such as a change in appetite, difficulty staying asleep, early awakening, low interest in daily activities.
- Let the student know you’re aware he/she is feeling down and you would like to help.
- Reach out more than halfway and encourage the student to express how she/he is feeling. Depressed students are often initially reluctant to talk, yet others’ attention helps the student feel more worthwhile.
- Tell the student of your concern, refer to Counseling Center, (540) 665-4530 and/or the National Foundation for Depressive Illness, (800) 239-1265.
- Say, “Don’t worry”,”Crying won’t help”, or “Everything will be better tomorrow.”
- Be afraid to ask whether the student is suicidal if you think he/she may be.
The Suicidal Student
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students. The suicidal student is intensely ambivalent about killing himself/herself and typically responds to help; suicidal states are definitely time limited and most who commit suicide are neither crazy nor psychotic. Sometimes a recent loss may trigger thoughts of death with no real interest in taking one’s life. High risk indicators include feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and futility; a severe loss or threat of loss; a detailed suicidal plan; history of a previous attempt; history of alcohol or drug abuse; and feelings of alienation and isolation. Its more than depression, it’s a feeling of complete giving up of life and all of its routine tasks. Suicidal students usually want to communicate their feelings and the inability to do so results in a rage or anger directed toward themselves.
- Take it seriously – 75 percent of all people who commit suicide give some warning of their intentions to a friend or family member.
- Be willing to listen – even if professional help is needed, a student will be more willing to seek help if you have listened to him or her.
- Voice your concern – take the initiative to ask what is troubling the student and let them know how concerned you are.
- Get professional help immediately.
- If occurs during office hours (9am-5pm) bring the student to the Counseling Center, room 301 on the top floor of Cooley Hall to see one of our Counselors.
- If after hours, call 911 and/or encourage them to call the local 24 hour crisis line at Winchester Crisis Care, (540) 536-8152 at Winchester Medical Center.
- They can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255.
- Assume the situation will take care of itself.
- Be sworn to secrecy.
- Act shocked or surprised at what the person says.
- Challenge or dare.
- Argue or debate moral issues.
The Anxious and Stressed Student
Most of us live, work, teach and learn in a complex and stressful world. Epidemiological studies indicate that at any given time 17 percent of the general population is suffering with clinical levels of anxiety.
- Listen and let them express their feelings and thoughts – sincere listening alone often relieves a great deal of pressure.
- Be clear and explicit with what your expectations are for your class.
- Remain calm.
- Encourage the student to attend a stress management workshop or make an appointment to see a Counselor in the Counseling Center, Cooley Hall Room 301
Other Stress management and emotional wellness links:
- Minimize the severity of anxiety symptoms.
- Argue about how bad things are or tell them they will “snap out of it” soon.
- Get frustrated when your suggestions are resisted.
The contents of this handout are adapted from San Diego State University and are the product of the combined efforts of Counseling Centers who comprise the Organization of Counseling Center Directors in Higher Education (OCCDHE).