Faculty & Staff

The emotional and academic pressure of university life, while manageable and even exhilarating for most students, can be simply overwhelming for others. Such students may not yet have attained the level of maturity necessary to develop adequate coping skills, or they may be struggling with relatively long-standing emotional deficits that are exacerbated by the transition to college life. Consequently, due to your position, status, and visibility on campus, students experiencing emotional distress may turn to you for help. Or, because of your role, you may find yourself confronted by a disturbed or disturbing student who needs assistance.

Follow the guidelines below to recognize, intervene, and refer emotionally troubled students to Counseling & Consultation Services (CCS) so that they can get the help they need.

Recognizing Emotionally Troubled Students

At one time or another, everyone feels stressed, depressed, or anxious. However, some behaviors occurring over a period of time can suggest that the problems with which the student is dealing are more than the expected ones. The following are three levels of behaviors indicating this kind of distress (adapted with permission from information provided by the Counseling and Mental Health Center of the University of Texas, Austin, Texas.)

Level 1 - Although not disruptive to others, these behaviors may indicate that help is needed:

  • serious grade problems or a change from consistently good grades to unaccountably poor performance
  • excessive absences, especially if the student previously demonstrated consistent class and/or work attendance
  • unusual or markedly changed pattern of interaction, i.e., totally avoiding participation, becoming excessively anxious when called upon, dominating discussion, etc.
  • other characteristics that may indicate a problem, including depressed mood and lethargic behavior
  • excessive activity and very rapid speech
  • swollen, red eyes
  • marked change in personal dress and hygiene
  • anxious behavior
  • falling asleep in class or at work

Level 2 - These behaviors may indicate significant emotional distress and also a reluctance or inability to acknowledge a need for personal help:

  • repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions (especially if the student appears uncomfortable or highly emotional disclosing the circumstances prompting the request)
  • new or consistent behavior which pushes the limits of decorum and which interferes with the effective management of your class or work setting
  • an unusual or exaggerated emotional response that is obviously inappropriate to the situation

Level 3 - These behaviors usually show students in obvious crisis who need emergency care:

  • highly disruptive behavior (hostile, aggressive, violent, etc.)
  • inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, unconnected or disjointed thoughts)
  • loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that aren’t present, beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability)
  • overtly suicidal thoughts (referring to suicide as a current option)
  • homicidal threats

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What Can you Do?

Level 3 problems are often the easiest to identify and respond to since there are specific procedures for helping students in crisis. Basically, you need to stay calm and know who to call for help. See How to make a referral.

If a student exhibits Level 1 or Level 2 behavior, you may choose to approach the student or the student may seek your help with a problem.

  • Demonstrate your respect for the student by talking to the student when both of you have sufficient time and are in a private place free from disturbance by others.
  • Be matter-of-fact. Control your emotions and it may help the student to do the same.
  • Give the student your undivided attention.
  • Express concern for the student in clear, direct, behavioral, non-judgmental terms (e.g., “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class lately and I’m concerned,” rather than “Why haven’t you been in class?” or “Where have you been lately?”).
  • Listen to the student’s description of the problems which are interfering with his/her academic work in a respectful, non-threatening way.
  • Let the student talk.

Convey support and understanding by summarizing what you hear the student saying by including both content and feelings (“It sounds as if the experience of moving away from home was a big change and now you’re feeling lonely and isolated”).

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When in doubt, consult

If you have specific questions about a student, or are unsure about whether or how to approach this individual to make a referral, call CCS at 815-753-1206, indicate that you are concerned about a student, and ask to speak to an available counselor. The CCS staff member can help you:

  • Assess the seriousness of the situation
  • Learn about resources, both on and off campus, so that you can provide the student with potential options for getting assistance
  • Decide how best to initiate the referral process
  • Clarify your own feelings regarding the student and consider how you can be most effective

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How to make a referral

Once you have decided to refer a student to CCS, you can proceed in any of the following ways:

  • Suggest that the student call CCS or attend a walk-in appointment so that they can be seen by a counselor as soon as possible (Level 1 severity).
  • Suggest that the student use your telephone to discuss a walk-in appointment while still in your office. When the call is made from your office, you know that at least initial contact with CCS has been made. By making the call him/herself, however, the student is exercising personal responsibility and is more likely to follow through to get help. In addition, your willingness to let him/her handle this part of the process is a vote of confidence and affirms his/her positive coping capacities (Level 1 or 2 severity).
  • Call CCS yourself while the student is still in your office, and discuss a walk-in appointment for the student. If you feel this is an emergency situation, please indicate this when you contact us.
  • Indicate your willingness to help the student provide CCS with information about the nature of the problem and the reason for your referral (Level 2 or 3 severity).
  • In more significant situations (i.e., Level 3 Severity), it might be best to accompany the student to CCS, Campus Life Building, room 200. This is one way to ensure the student receives immediate support and assistance. In an emergency, the student will be seen immediately (Monday through Friday). If possible, a call that you are bringing a student to CCS would be appreciated so staff can be prepared for your arrival.

Additionally, do not hesitate to contact NIU Public Safety at 815-753-1212 for emergency assistance. If a Level 3 emergency occurs after office hours or on a weekend, call NIU Public Safety and request to speak to the CCS on-call counselor. The on-call counselor will then contact you directly.

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What happens when a student goes to CCS?

Students should be encouraged to attend a walk-in appointment at CCS. Our office is located in the Campus Life Building, room 200. Students can also call the office at 815-753-1206 for more information about a walk-in appointment and the services we offer. Students are seen as soon as possible, although during periods of high demand they may need to wait to see an available counselor. In emergency situations, however, a student will be seen immediately.

Students are asked to fill out confidential information forms before meeting with a counselor. During the walk-in consultation, the counselor will assess the student’s concerns and needs and decide if CCS is the most appropriate place for the student to receive ongoing services. Students need to know that communication with us is confidential. We cannot discuss a student, his/her situation, or even the fact that counseling is being received at CCS without the student’s permission. The only exceptions to this are imminent suicide, homicide, or suspected child or elder abuse, and even in these circumstances disclosures are limited to those who can provide immediate assistance.

If it is decided that counseling at CCS is most appropriate, the student can expect to see a counselor on a regular basis, usually weekly for 50 minute sessions. Other options include group counseling at CCS or a referral to another campus or community agency. It is possible that the student may leave the initial appointment feeling able to handle the problem on his/her own. We cannot require a student to accept any referral we make unless our professional judgment indicates that psychiatric assessment at a hospital is necessary.

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How to follow up after a referral

Once a referral has been initiated, it is reasonable and prudent to follow up with the student to determine if he/she actually has attended counseling. Depending on the nature of your relationship with the student, you may also find yourself wondering, “How is it going?” If this is done in a non-intrusive way, such a question may be well received. The student’s right to privacy, however, should always be respected.

If you wish to give us information about a student you referred, you may do so. Please remember that the counselor-client relationship is confidential, so we will not be able to release information about a specific student without permission from the student unless we determine that the student or someone else is in physical danger.

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