How to Deal with Distressed Students

A Guide for the University of Kentucky Community
by the UK Counseling Center Consultation and Psychological Services

As individuals who work closely with UK students, you may encounter distressed students in your offices or classrooms. Your role could be a crucial and positive one in identifying and referring students who are experiencing some difficulty with academic, career, or personal concerns.  You may be the first contact for a student in distress and in a position to intervene.  Following these guidelines can lead to a positive outcome for all parties.

What to Look For:

  • depression
  • disorientation
  • suicidal thoughts
  • agitation or acting out
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • violence and aggression

Intervention Guidelines

Safety First! Always keep safety in mind as you interact with a distressed student.  If danger to you or the student seems imminent, call 911 for the Campus police.

Avoid Escalation.  It is usually not a good idea to assert authority unless you are certain of the student’s mental health status.  Distressed students are in need of listening and support.

Ask Direct Questions.  Ask students directly if they are drunk, confused or if they have thoughts of harming themselves.  You need not be afraid to ask these questions.  You will not be “putting ideas in their heads” by doing so.  Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.

Do Not Assume You Are Being Manipulated.  Only a thorough assessment can determine this.  Attention-seeking or responsibility-avoiding students can have serious problems and be in danger, too.

Know Your Limits.  Respect any feelings of discomfort you may have as this may be a sign of over-extension in your helping; focus on getting them the assistance they require.

Over-extension signs:

  • Feeling burdened or stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
  • Feeling a sense of urgency that you need to (re)solve this student’s problem
  • Feeling angry or overly frustrated or disappointed at the student
  • Feeling afraid for your or the student’s safety
  • Having thoughts of “adopting” or otherwise rescuing the student
  • “Reliving” or “Flashing back” to similar experiences of your own

Helping the Student

You may call for a consultation to discuss your concerns about a student, or you may talk to the student directly.

If the situation is a psychological emergency, call the Center (257-8701) and state:

“This is an emergency. A student needs an appointment immediately.”

We consider a situation to be an emergency when there is disabling emotional distress, e.g., insomnia, uncontrollable crying, agitation, inability to manage daily tasks.


We understand that you may be interested in the progress of the student you have referred; however, we can release information only with written permission from the client.

We can:

  • Answer your questions concerning steps to take in assisting students in coming to the Counseling Center.
  • Offer you information about psychological concerns and problems in a general way.

We cannot:

  • Say whether a student is being seen here or has kept an appointment.
  • Discuss the content of sessions.
  • Discuss treatment plans or progress.

Asking a student to provide written authorization for information to be shared with you may be appropriate and beneficial.  This should only be requested for the benefit of the student.

Services Offered at the Counseling Center

  • Individual, group, or couples counseling sessions
  • Crisis intervention (for walk-ins and for faculty and staff walking a student over)
  • Referral to other departments or services on campus and/or in the community if needed after the initial assessment
  • Grief interventions for UK departments or units

Counseling is available, without charge, to fee-paying students at UK who are enrolled for six or more semester hours.

Counseling Center Consultation and Psychological Services
201 Frazee Hall  (on Administration Drive near the Student Center)
Phone: 859-257-8701      Fax: 859-257-3319

Download this post as a one-page flyer (.pdf file) here.



About UK Student and Academic Life

Undergraduate Education is now recreated within the Division of Student and Academic Life in the Provost's Office at the University of Kentucky.
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