December 09, 2013

Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress

• Because faculty and staff members are often the first to notice a student experiencing distress, it makes sense―and can be greatly beneficial―to provide them with training that enables them to take proper action for getting help for the student.

That’s the goal of Monday’s Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress seminar, presented by the WPI Student Development & Counseling Center (SDCC) from noon to 1:30 pm in the Rubin Campus Center, Hagglund Room.

The seminar will reveal how to recognize warning signs that a student may be struggling, and will identify appropriate steps for reaching out and connecting the student with the support he or she may need, according to Matthew Barry, a counselor with the SDCC.

Barry says the objective is to empower faculty and staff members as part of an early detection system to recognize and respond to situations before they become bigger problems. A secondary goal is to alleviate some anxiety for staff and faculty who may find themselves in roles in which they can provide personal support to students.

A key issue, he notes, is knowing when to get involved and to what degree. “There are many factors in play. If there is ever concern for a student’s safety or ability to function, we hope that at least some action will be taken, even if it starts with just running the concern by a professional peer in the SDCC.”

Just how much to get involved is an important question for faculty and staff members who may notice an issue but are not trained as counselors. Talking to the student, expressing concern, and listening actively is the right approach, says Barry. If there appears to be difficult struggles going on, the faculty or staff member should consult with the SDCC or encourage the student to make an appointment at the Center. Campus Police should always be alerted to immediate safety concerns.

Not sure what to do about a situation? Ask the SDCC, he says. The role of faculty and staff members―and the impact they can have on students’ well-being―cannot be understated, according to Barry.

“It is important to couple our rigorous academics with a sense of mentorship and care to give students the best chance to make the most of their time with us. The personal connections can do more than that, though. In some cases, a personal bond can mean the literal difference between life and death.”

Barry says the program gets high marks from the people who have gone through it. Faculty and staff members from WPI and other colleges have noted that the training they received helps them find direction in difficult situations.

“Ultimately, what we’ve tried to build is a program that speaks directly to needs we’ve heard expressed by our own community. We are glad that it seems to work well for other campuses, and we hope to see our programs spread so students all over the country and the world can be kept safe and supported.”

He says that when the SDCC works with students, the goal is to get them safe and functional. Most frequently, Center staff members will work with them one-on-one in confidential counseling sessions in which they can help identify positive changes students might make in their own lives. When appropriate, students may also be referred to off-campus resources for further support.

The SDCC is located at 157 West Street. Office hours are 8 am to 5 pm. Monday through Friday. Students may ask questions by email at, but appointments should be made in person or by phone at 508-831-5540. Walk-in hours are weekdays from 1 to 2 pm.

By Mike D’Onofrio


What to look for

While the presence of one of the following indicators alone does not necessarily mean that a student is experiencing severe distress, the more indicators that are noticed, the more likely that he or she needs help. When in doubt, consult with the SDCC.


  • Repeated absences from class, section, or lab
  • Missed assignments, exams, or appointments
  • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work
  • Written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, or confusion; essays or papers that focus on suicide or death
  • Patterns of perfectionism: Can’t accept themselves if they don’t get an A

Behavioral and emotional

  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or loss
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling, or aggressive comments
  • More withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; severe anxiety or irritability
  • Lack of response to outreach from staff


  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns
  • Disorganized, rapid, or slurred speech; confusion