How to Help a Friend in Distress
As a friend of another Catawba College student, you have a unique opportunity to positively impact your friend's life. When a student is upset or in distress, s/he commonly turns to friends for support or advice. College students generally like to help out their friends. Much of the time, this works out well and your input helps your friend through her/his problem. At other times the problems that are brought by a friend can be very intense, feel overwhelming, or make you feel afraid. It is important to pay attention to these feelings, since they may be signaling that you are at the limits of what you know to do to be helpful. It is at this time that you can best help your friend by suggesting that s/he might benefit from talking to a professional.
REMEMBER: You are not alone! When you are in a situation in which you are talking with a friend about her/his problems, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:
- Do not take on other people's problems and then feel responsible for the outcome of the problem. If you find that you are spending large amounts of time talking to your friend, worrying about her/him, it is time for you to bring in other people to help. You are here for an education and growth experiences, and taking on other's problems distracts you from those goals.
- Do not promise your friend confidentiality of any information s/he may pass along to you when s/he talks to you about a problem. By doing so, you may later be in a difficult situation if the situation is beyond what you can do to assist and has possibly turned into a situation involving danger for your friend or others. You may delay asking for needed help because you promised not to tell anyone. Getting someone the help s/he needs takes priority over confidentiality.
- Get support for yourself if you feel you need it or if you do not know what to do to help your friend any further. There are many resources available at the College and you can find these by contacting Counseling Services at ext. 4307. The Residence Life Staff at ext. 4410 is also available for assistance in ways to help a friend. Check with your RA or one of the head RA's. Safety always comes first. If you are concerned for the safety of you, your friend, or anyone else, call Public Safety at ext. 4000.
Beginning a Conversation About Your Concerns
By communicating interest and concern to a distressed student, you may play an important role in helping that student regain the balance to cope with distress and function well. If you are not sure how to approach a student you are concerned about, consult with a colleague, or call Counseling Services at ext. 4307 and ask to speak with a counselor. Counselors are available to serve as consultants to students, faculty, and staff handling difficult student situations. If you choose to approach a friend you're concerned about or if a friend reaches out to you for help with personal concerns, here are some suggestions that might make it more comfortable for you and more helpful for your friend.
- Talk to your friend, either alone or with someone else, in private. Speak directly, sincerely, and honestly.
- Express your concern in specific, nonjudgmental terms and within a context of caring and concern. Tell her/him clearly what behaviors you have observed that are causing you concern.
- Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, nonthreatening way. Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you.
- Let your friend know that you believe a counselor would be of help. If s/he takes a defensive posture, simply restate your concerns and recommendations.
- If your friend is willing to schedule an appointment, offer to assist this process by offering her/him immediate use of your phone or by walking her/him to Counseling Services or Health Services.
- Contact Counseling Services (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). The Student Affairs administrative assistant or one of the counselors will arrange for the student to meet with a counselor as soon as possible.
- Dangerous crisis situations include suicidal behaviors or threats, homicidal behavior or threats, irrational dangerous behavior, or excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs. If you are not sure whether the situation represents immediate danger, err on the side of caution and call Public Safety at ext. 4000 or 911.
Indicators of Distress in College Students
Sometimes friends will let you know in a direct way that something is bothering them by telling you about it. At other times, friends may not directly tell you that something is wrong, depending on the person and/or the situation with which they are dealing. At times like this, it is important to know what kinds of things to notice in your friends that will signal that s/he is overstressed and overtaxed. Listed below are some categories of Indicators of Distress with specific examples under each category. This is not a comprehensive list of all indicators, but rather, a listing of problems that typically may occur. As you read through these indicators, please also keep in mind the following:
- Friends that you choose to assist may or may not have a mental health concern. Respond to her/his behavior. Don't try to diagnose.
- When in doubt, it is always okay to refer to or consult with Counseling Services.
- None of these indicators alone is sufficient for predicting mental health problems, aggression and/or violence to self or others. However, when they occur in combination they may suggest your friend is in distress and that you may want to draw in other professionals for advice on how to handle the situation.
- Know your limits and don't overextend yourself. Experience shows that sometimes other students get too involved in trying to help their friends and then struggle if their efforts are not having the positive effect they are seeking.
- It is better to act sooner rather than later.
- The intention here is to increase your awareness of signs that something might be wrong with your friend. However, the information below is not meant to suggest that you must be a “junior therapist” and ask questions to pull out information. Rather, these are behaviors that you may observe and/or that your friend may share in conversation.
- Cultural factors often play a role in how students communicate distress. Students from some cultural backgrounds may believe that it is shameful to talk about their problems with anyone outside of their family. Others may communicate distress through complaints about physical symptoms.
- International students may experience signs of “cultural shock” at some point after their arrival in the United States. This is a common reaction to adjusting to different beliefs, attitudes, and values in a new country. Problems encountered by an international student may create a complex situation for her/him because of the rules and regulations regarding foreign citizens.
Academic Indicators of Distress
- Missing assignments
- Deterioration in quality of work
- A drop in grades
- Repeated absences from class
- A negative change in classroom performance
- Verbal aggressiveness in class meetings
- Disorganized or erratic performance
- Continual seeking of special accommodations (late papers, extensions, postponed examinations, etc.)
- Essays or creative work that indicate extremes of hopelessness, social isolation, rage, or despair
Personal/Interpersonal Indicators of Distress
- Unprovoked anger or hostility
- Excessive dependency
- Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Exaggerated personality traits (e.g., more withdrawn or animated than normal)
- Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or other difficulties
- A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong
- Expressions of concern about a student in the class by his/her peers
- Changes in typical clothing (baggy clothing; long sleeves; inappropriate for weather)
Physical Indicators of Distress
- Deterioration in physical appearance
- Visible changes in weight
- Lack of personal hygiene
- Excessive fatigue
- Appearing bleary-eyed, hung over, or smelling of alcohol
- Appearing sick or ill
- Chapped hands
Environmental Indicators of Distress
- Observations from housekeeping staff
- Not picking up mail in mailbox
- Not using meal card in cafeteria
- Formal disciplinary notices in the residence hall
Safety/Risk Indicators of Distress
- Statements to the effect that the student is “going away for a long time”
- Any written note or verbal statement that has a “sense of finality” (possible suicidality)
- Severe depression
- Any history of suicidal thoughts or attempts
- Giving away of prized possessions
- Self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors
- Out-of-control behavior
- Essays or papers that focus on despair, suicide, death, violence or aggression
- Verbal or written (email, Facebook, etc.) threats of harm to self or others