Common problems (How to support distressed students)


How to support distressed students

Tertiary education, including University, College, Business School, and Management School is a stressful environment for many students, with its emphasis on competition and high achievement. These are both hallmarks of success and a recipe for stress and mental health issues.

Students experiencing distress, regardless of their presenting problem, will often approach a person they know first and it may well be you, as their lecturer, supervisor, tutor, friend, parent or administrative officer. While it is not expected that you will engage in intensive counselling with the student, you can still help and provide much needed support.

Recognising SIGNS of Distress

Some common indicators, that the student may be experiencing problems, include:

  • A marked decline in their quality of work and/or class participation
  • Excessive procrastination, extension requests skimpy on details
  • Frequent unexplained absences from class
  • Prolonged depression evidenced by sadness, apathy, weight loss/gain, tearfulness, sleeping difficulty
  • Talk of suicide directly or indirectly, e.g. “I won’t be around to take that exam anyway” , “It’s all too hard, I can’t go on”
  • Signs of nervousness, agitation or excessive worry
  • Statements indicating a sense of worthlessness or helplessness
  • Marked change in personal hygiene or appearance
  • Atypical behaviour: aggressive, bizarre or inappropriate
  • Overly dependent on academic or administrative staff
  • Impaired speech, disjointed thoughts and losing touch with reality

Ways You Can Help

In assisting students with any type of problem, good communication skills and knowledge of specialised services are essential. If you feel uncomfortable discussing a particular issue, or worried about your own or the student’s safety then it is appropriate to refer the student to someone that can provide them with further support.

You already have a range of skills to support others that you have developed from your own relationships with family and friends, so feel free to assist the student if you wish to do so and have the time.

  • Find a private and comfortable place to talk without interruptions, show interest by appropriate eye contact and a body posture that indicates your concern.
  • Express your concern for the student and the difficulties that they are experiencing.
  • If the discussion is initiated by you, be as specific as possible about your concerns; state your observations and reasons, e.g. “You seem very unhappy and you have not submitted the last assignment, have there been some problems?”
  • Remain calm; a student who is upset will respond better if you maintain a relaxed and calm attitude, e.g. if they are crying, get them a tissue and wait until they are a bit calmer before asking questions.”
  • Listen actively to the student’s concerns. Show interest by maintaining eye contact and give the student time to express themselves fully.
  • Restate the main issues outlined by the student, in order to check your understanding of the problem.
  • Avoid criticism or appearing judgmental.
  • Help the student brainstorm some possible solutions to their dilemma, stress makes it difficult to think clearly and this process will help to clarify the issues.
  • Make a referral to see a Student Counsellor if you feel counselling is required

When to Refer

A student may need to be referred to a professional at RBS Counselling Services for further support and expertise. There is still a certain amount of stigma in our society around accessing mental health support so it is important that you broach this possibility in a positive manner, e.g. by addressing mental health issues this will enable the student to reach their goals more easily and reduce their distress.

Types of situations where a referral should be made:

  • You are worried about your own or the student’s safety
  • The student’s problems go beyond your own experience or expertise
  • You feel uncomfortable discussing a particular issue
  • Feeling out of your depth or level of comfort
  • Becoming overly involved in the student’s problems, then feeling distressed, frustrated or angry as a result
  • To make a referral suggest that the student call or attend RBS Counselling Services to make an appointment, give them our web and phone details. It can be helpful to make the call yourself with the student present. Follow up with the student to ensure that they have attended their appointment.

If the student resists referral and you remain uncomfortable with the situation, staff may contact Student Services or the UQ Health Service to discuss their concerns as soon as they feel safe and it is appropriate to do so.

Please note: A student does not have to be at crisis point to make an appointment. Better outcomes are often achieved by addressing problem areas early before they reach critical levels.

Emergency Situations

If a student is exhibiting signs that are a threat to their own or others safety it is important that staff act quickly and appropriately.

If you are concerned about a personal safety issue then Security should be contacted.

Contact RBS’s Counselling Services on the student’s behalf and inform them that the student needs to be seen urgently.

It may be necessary to stay with the student until they can be seen by an appropriate professional in order to ensure their safety.

If you or a colleague feels safe with the student and you want to ensure that they arrive at the building, then it may be appropriate to walk them over to the Counselling Services.

Referral Sources

  • REGENT’s Counselling Services can be contacted on 031     or email us at counselling@regent.co.za to make an appointment.
  • Life Line’s 24 hour telephone counselling for general trauma. Call their National counselling line on 0861 322 322 or visit their website for more information at lifeline.co.za