Students in Distress
Engaging Students in Distress
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.