Students in Distress
Over the past several years, college counseling centers across the U.S. have experienced striking increases in the number of students seeking treatment for psychological problems as well as amplification of symptom severity manifested by these students. Bowdoin is no exception. Utilization of our Counseling Service has increased by approximately 50% in the past five years. In the 2001-02 academic year, one in five students sought individual counseling at our office. Forty to fifty percent of students in any given class seek on-campus psychological counseling at some point during their time here. Utilization of psychiatric medication consultations has increased tenfold since 1995. Several Bowdoin students are hospitalized annually for psychiatric conditions, while others require psychologically-related medical leaves. Suicidal ideation and self-injurious behaviors are common here and on campuses nationwide. In a recent survey of college counseling centers, 80 of 274 (30%) of schools that responded experienced at least one student suicide in a one-year period. Despite increased utilization of psychological services, many students in distress, especially those with substance abuse or eating disorders, neither seek nor receive treatment.
In the face of these national patterns and day-to-day experiences with troubled students, many faculty and staff members have expressed concern and requested information to assist them in identifying problems and helping students locate professional support. At Bowdoin, by virtue of our small size and academic values, we have committed ourselves to support students in their growth as total human beings. This document is designed to assist faculty and staff to recognize typical signs exhibited by students in distress, to communicate effectively with such students, and to refer them to appropriate campus resources.
Signs and behaviors listed under the following categories are often indicative of psychological distress.
Expressions of concern about a student by other students
Marked Changes in Academic Performance
- Excessive class absences or tardiness
- Avoidance of classroom participation
- Inappropriate disruption or monopolization of class time
- Significant deterioration in quality of work
- Frequent requests for special considerations, especially when this represents a change from previous functioning
- Consistently missed appointments and assignments
Unusual Behavior, Attitudes, or Appearance
- Depressed mood, lethargy, excessive fatigue
- Hyperactivity, very rapid speech, grandiosity
- Unprovoked irritability, angry outbursts, any form of physical aggression or violence
- Unexplained crying
- Visible anxiety, marked negativity, or obsessive thoughts
- Marked change in personal hygiene or dress
- Noticeable weight loss or gain
- Strange or bizarre behavior possibly indicating loss of contact with reality. (Rambling thoughts, laughing to self, disorganized thinking, suspiciousness, or prolonged vacant staring.)
Direct or Indirect References to Significant Distress, Suicide, or Homicide
- Expressed thoughts of helplessness or hopelessness
- Comments suggesting family problems or marked isolation from family or friends
- Reference to "voices" telling the student what to do
- Overt or indirect references to suicide (may appear in written assignments)
- Sharing of homicidal threats
Bowdoin faculty and staff are neither expected nor encouraged to provide psychotherapy or clinical assessment services to students. Having said that, it is also evident that faculty and staff are often in an optimal position to notice students in distress, to engage them in conversations about their situations, and, ultimately, to refer them to appropriate resources for assistance.
If you are having difficulty deciding if, when, or how you should approach a student in apparent distress, individuals at the Counseling Service, Dean for Student Affairs Office, and Student Health Service are available for consultation. If you feel that a student is in imminent danger or crisis, please alert the Counseling Service immediately. If you believe a student may be experiencing psychological distress, the following guidelines will help facilitate effective communication:
- Speaking with a student out of genuine concern will usually be perceived as a kind and thoughtful gesture rather than an intrusion.
- When you address the student, offer non-judgmental descriptions of the behaviors/signs that have provoked your concern. Be as specific and concrete as possible (e.g. "I'm concerned that you've missed so many classes recently").
- Listen openly to the student's description of what's happening in his or her life. Acknowledge (validate) how the student is seeing things at this time so that he or she may know that you understand.
- If you have questions, ask them directly and non-judgmentally.
- Allow for silences.
- If you are concerned about the possibility of self-injury or suicide, ask directly if the student is considering hurting him/herself. Bringing up this subject will not "put ideas in the person's head". Often a student will be relieved to hear that someone is "tuned in" well enough to ask.
- Avoid making promises of confidentiality. If it turns out that the student is a potential danger to self or others, such promises cannot be kept.
- Try to determine the nature and extent of the student's friendships, family connections, and other sources of social support. Determine if he or she is reaching out for help from support systems.
- Be clear with the student (and yourself) about what support you can and cannot provide.
- Describe resources available on campus (e.g. Counseling Service, Health Center, Dean of Student Affairs Office, Office of Residence Life). Explain the potential benefits of professional support.
- Volunteer to help the student make an appointment with a counselor (if desired).
- Instill hope in the student that things can improve with a new course of action.
While a student often feels much better after talking with an interested adult, you might sense that his or her problems are beyond the scope of your expertise. In such cases, it is helpful to encourage a student to seek assistance at the Counseling Service. Reassuring the student that it is normal to have some problems during the college years, stating the fact that almost half of Bowdoin College students seek contact with the Counseling Service during their time here, and stressing that the Counseling Service staff enjoy working with students and have a great deal of compassion for the student's experience (whatever it may be) can also help a student to feel more relaxed about asking for help.
Scheduling an Appointment (725-3145)
If you feel there is no immediate emergency and that counseling might be helpful, providing a student with information about accessing our services can facilitate the process. To schedule an appointment, a student should call our Administrative Coordinator, Lindsay Moore, at 725-3145. In most cases, students can be seen within a week of scheduling their appointment. We make every attempt to work around a student's academic schedule, although sometimes this is difficult and the student may need to have some flexibility in order to be seen in a timely fashion. Another approach is to encourage the student to call to make the appointment from your office, or for you to make the appointment for him/her (with the student's permission and presence in the room at the time of your phone call). If you wish to refer a student to a specific counselor, please call ahead to check on that counselor's availability. It is often helpful for a counselor to have information about a student's situation before the counselor sees the student. Students are usually willing, even relieved, for an initial conversation between the faculty or staff member and the counselor to take place. If you would like to speak with the counselor, ask the student's permission to do so when referring him or her.
In case of emergency, where you feel uneasy about letting a student leave your office, you may call the Counseling Service and let our administrative secretary know that you are walking over with a student you would like to be seen immediately. Another option in urgent situations is for the student to be seen during our "emergency" hour. Each day we reserve an hour for students whose problems are of sufficient urgency that they should be seen that same day. Our "emergency" hour is from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm on weekdays. We appreciate your calling to let us know you would like a student to be seen during that time and that the student has agreed to this.
After Hours Coverage
If you are confronted with an emergency situation outside of regular office hours (Monday-Friday 8:30 am - 5:00 pm) or on weekends, you can call Bowdoin Security, 725-3500 and ask to speak to the on-call counselor. Security will contact the counselor and he or she will call you back right away.
Getting Support and Professional Consultation
In addition to direct services to students, we offer consultation services to faculty and staff who have concerns about a student but feel uncertain about whether to act on their intuitions. You may arrange a consult, by calling our administrative secretary and telling her that you would like to talk with a counselor about a student. If you indicate that this is an emergency, a counselor will be available to talk with you immediately. If it is not an emergency, a counselor will return your call as soon as possible. Situations involving student psychological issues can be complex and confusing. When in doubt, call!
Counseling Service 725-3145 (Lindsay Moore, Administrative Coordinator)
Bernie R. Hershberger, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist 725-3069
Bowdoin College Security 725-3500 or 725-3314
Health Center 725-3770
Dean of Student Affairs Office 725-3149
Office of Residence Life 725-3225