Teaching Tips | February 8, 2016

How to identify and intervene with distressed students

As educators on a college campus, you’re likely to face situations in which a student’s behavior and/or emotional well-being become cause for concern:

Sara comes to your office hours and spontaneously tells you about her personal problems (in more detail than seems necessary). She expresses that she’s been feeling depressed because of the various stressors she’s described, and asks if she can hand in her paper late, which is already over a week past due. In your syllabus you have clearly stated, and reviewed with the class at the start of the semester, your policy around late assignments, which is that they will not be accepted unless previously arranged with the professor.

Should you make an exception and accept Sara’s late paper? Should you try to comfort her by telling her how your niece went through a similar time in college? Is a referral to Counseling Services warranted?

John presents as a bright student and has shared some impressive ideas in class. However, you have noticed that whenever peers challenge any of his ideas, either directly or by sharing a different perspective, he has responded in an aggressive manner (e.g., making an insulting comment). You’ve also observed other students in the class reacting to him in a negative manner (e.g., rolling their eyes when he is going off on one of his rants). You want him to speak in class, but you’re concerned that the way he participates may be having a negative impact on the class environment as a whole.

Should you ask to talk to John during office hours? Pull him aside before or after class one day? Wait it out a little longer before saying anything to him?

Tareek started out the semester quiet, but seemed to be attentive during class and actively took notes. Over time you noticed that he started to appear distracted in class, his note taking all but stopped, and his appearance was somewhat disheveled. Then he handed in a reflection paper that included some odd ideas about the government conspiring against particular groups of students.

Should you reach out to Tareek to talk about what you’ve observed and about his reflection paper? How would you present your concerns without offending him?

Is there someone on campus you should inform when you’re concerned about a student’s mental health?


Situations like these can be challenging to manage, but they can also provide opportunities to have a significant positive impact on students’ lives. It’s helpful to discuss questions like the ones above in the context of situations that you’ve faced or may encounter in the future, and our February 11 workshop, How to identify and intervene with distressed students, will provide you with that opportunity.  Come join us to discuss:

  • how to identify students struggling with mental health issues
  • how to effectively engage students in a conversation about your concerns
  • how, where, and when to refer them for help

Counseling & Wellness Services’ counselors are also available to consult with faculty when challenging situations with distressed students arise.  They can be reached by phone at 212-772-4931, or by walking into the main office, 1123 East (Office hours: Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).  Hunter departments or other groups of faculty and staff can request customized workshops through Health Promotion and Education (part of Counseling & Wellness Services).

More information for faculty and staff on how to help distressed students and general information about Counseling and Wellness Services is available on our website.




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