Engaging Students in Distress
Dr. Irene Kraegel
Given the rising expression of student anxiety, depression, and other emotional struggles, faculty and staff across campuses increasingly find themselves in supportive roles for distressed students. Dr. Irene Kraegel, director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI), offered strategies for off-campus study leaders and new faculty at two CCCU summer events. We’ve compiled some of her guidelines as a resource for all leaders.
Levels of Emotional Distress (and What to Do)
Understanding the kind of crisis a student is experiencing can help you understand how best to meet their needs.
Level 1: Uncomfortable Emotions | A student is going through periods of sadness, anxiety, irritability, or social withdrawal, perhaps related to transitional stress, academic pressures, or relationship issues. While these fluctuations may be “normal,” they can be particularly distressing for a student with undeveloped coping skills.
What to do
- Engage in active and reflective listening, providing empathy and encouragement.
- Encourage them to seek support from peers and other campus supports.
- Make the student aware of available mental health resources.
Level 2: Intense and/or Chronic Uncomfortable Emotions | A student is experiencing strong, extended bouts of anxiety, depression, or social isolation, or they are exhibiting non-lethal self-harming behavior (such as cutting) or vague suicidal thinking (with no intent to follow through).
What to do
- Engage in active, reflective listening, and inquire about methods they are use to manage their stress. If you are concerned about safety, also ask directly if they are considering suicide. (If yes, go to Level 3.)
- Ask if they are receiving support from a counselor or other health professional. If not, encourage them to make an appointment (and offer to help them do so, if needed).
- Make note of the conversation, consult with your supervisor or department chair, and inform wellnessrelated staff on your campus.
- Follow up with the student to express care and ongoing encouragement to seek treatment.
Level 3: Danger to Self or Others | A student is expressing evidence of being a danger to self or to others, or has disconnected from reality and is exhibiting psychotic behaviors.
What to do
- Maintain a calm demeanor with the student, but engage appropriate emergency personnel immediately. Do NOT attempt to manage the situation on your own.
- Contact all appropriate parties as dictated by your campus’s emergency protocol.
But What Do I Say?
Sometimes the toughest part is starting the conversation. Here are a few guidelines that can help.
Getting the Conversation Going: Start with open-ended questions to give the opportunity to open up: “It seems like you might be having a hard time – can we talk?” “I’m concerned about your absences from class – how are you doing?” “Part of my role is taking time to check in with students – do you have a couple minutes to touch base?”
Keeping the Conversation Going: Use phrases that reflect thoughts and feelings and provide empathy and validation (“I understand why you would feel that – this is a busy and challenging time in your life”), and highlight strengths and supports you’ve observed (“You have many people who care for you”).
Offering the Next Step: When making a treatment referral, start by asking what they’ve done in the past, and be sure to normalize the help-seeking experience (“I know a lot of students find it helpful to talk to a counselor when they’re feeling like this”). If they express reluctance to seek help, explore their reasons nonjudgmentally (“What would keep you from talking to a counselor about these things?”) and provide both hope and support (“Could it be worth trying just one session to see what it’s like?”). Offer to help them make the appointment, if needed.
Things to Remember
Never promise confidentiality to a student, and remain within the boundaries of your role. Always be up front and honest about your reasons for concern with a student. And remember that good listening is the most important thing you can do – it may not feel like much to you, but having authentic connection with others goes a long way for all of us during times of struggle.