Faculty/Staff Resources

Faculty and staff in student-facing roles are often the first to notice changes in a student's behavior or in their overall emotional health. Accordingly, it behooves all of us to prepare for personal conversations and to know what to look out for. Along these lines, we have vetted and recommend the following training for those conversations, which only takes 15-20 minutes. It covers what we regard as essential practices when working with students in distress. First and foremost, recognizing the warning signs of a student in distress requires awareness.

  1. Recognize warning signs.
      • A dramatic drop in academic performance and/or GPA
      • Continual seeking of unusual accommodations (extensions for papers, exams, etc.)
      • Papers that have themes of hopelessness, despair or rage
      • Disproportionate response to unwanted grades or other evaluations
      • Persistent absence from class; missed appointments
      • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
      • Obvious substance use, such as smell of alcohol or slurred speech
      • Marked changes in concentration, motivation or energy level
      • Sudden withdrawal from interactions with faculty, staff and peers
      • Inappropriate, exaggerated, or aggressive behavior
      • Written or verbal statements that indicate despondency
      • Direct statements indicating family problems or personal losses
      • References to harming oneself or others
      • Concern about a student from peers
      • Your own sense, however vague, that something is seriously amiss
  2. Listen to the student.
    • If a student shares their concerns with you, it is important to simply listen in an open way. This will help you better assess whether warning signs are present and if you should refer a student to the University Counseling Center. If you receive a troubling message from a student, try to find a private place and speak with them in person.
    • It is not necessary for you to solve the student's problem; you don't have to act as a therapist. Just listen patiently and receptively, trying to be yourself as much as possible.
      • Don't underestimate the importance of listening
      • Your support can help the student walk away feeling that their concerns have been heard and understood
      • In some cases, you may be the first person who has really taken the time to listen and understand
  3. Express concern.
    • Explain your concerns and their basis. Avoid negative comments about character or personality.
    • Do say: "I've noticed that you haven't been yourself lately. Is everything ok?"
    • Don't say: "I've noticed you've been slacking off lately"
    • Tell the student why observations of their behavior have led you to believe that talking with a counselor may be advisable
    • Avoid talking in generalities. Instead, comment on specific, observable behavior
    • Pause here to see if the student offers a response
  4. Make a referral.
    • In addition to the warning signs listed above, consider referring a student for professional help when:
      • You feel you have reached the limits of your ability to help the student
      • You identify too closely with the student and/or the problem
      • A student has physical complaints that may be manifestations of psychological or medical problems
    • And when referring the student for help, keep the following in mind:
      • Assure the student that seeking counseling is a sign of strength, not weakness
      • Talk about making ONE appointment, versus "going to counseling"
      • Respect the student's right to reject the referral suggestion, or to think about it first
      • And DON'T WAIT if a student expresses thoughts of suicide

If you have immediate concerns about a student's safety on campus, stay with them and notify University Counseling Center at 540-458-8590 during business hours (after hours, or if they refuse assistance, call Public Safety at 540-458-8999). If they are off campus, call 988 or 911.

This content on this page was adapted with permission from Washington University in St. Louis.