Students in Distress: A Guide for Faculty and Staff

Learning and Student Success, Counseling Services

Fall 2017

Table of Contents


As Pierce College faculty or staff, you will eventually encounter a student in distress. Your role as a possible helper is not only valuable; it could prove to be crucial. This resource is offered to help you recognize signs indicating that a student is in distress, to suggest basic guidelines for helping the student, and to outline how to make appropriate, effective referrals.

Our campus and community provide many resources to meet the needs of our students. Links to referral sources for frequently encountered student problems can be found at the end of this document and the counseling web page with information for faculty, staff, and students.

Signs and Symptoms of Students in Distress

Although not always disruptive, some student behavior can alert us to serious situations that may merit intervention.

Possible Concerns

  • Serious grade problems or academic probation 
  • Inconsistency with quality of previous work 
  • Dependency or repeated requests for special consideration 
  • Listlessness, lack of energy, or falling asleep in class 
  • Poor classroom attendance 
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene, appearance, or behavior 
  • Change in social behavior, e.g., isolation from others 
  • Inappropriate emotional response, e.g., excessively tearful 
  • Signs of alcohol or other drug abuse

Greater Concerns or Crisis

  • Communication problems, e.g., garbled or incoherent speech
  • Threat of harming self or others, including overt statements, ideation, or gestures
  • Behavior that regularly interferes with effective management of class
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response, e.g., highly irritable or anxious
  • Inability to make decisions, despite repeated attempts to clarify and encourage
  • Bizarre or strange behavior or writings obviously inappropriate to the situation, e.g., talking to “invisible” people

Guidelines for Interaction

  • Talk with the student privately, listen attentively, showing concern, interest, and respect
  • For clarification, paraphrase or summarize the student’s statements
  • Avoid criticizing or judging
  • Be culturally sensitive, e.g., stigma related to mental health services
  • If appropriate, consider referring to the campus Faculty Counselor
  • If the student resists help and you are worried, consult with the campus Faculty Counselor or your Program Coordinator to discuss your concerns
  • Involve yourself only to the extent that you feel comfortable and involve others you consider appropriate 

Making a Referral to a Campus Mental Health Counselor

Suggest the student make an appointment to meet with the Faculty Counselor. Faculty Counselors are Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) in the state of Washington. Provide the phone number, email, and location of the Faculty Counselor’s office.

  • You could call the Faculty Counselor while the student is in your office and then hand the phone to the student to arrange the appointment date and time. Write down the Faculty Counselor’s location and phone number for the student.
  • Sometimes it is useful or necessary to walk a student to the Faculty Counselor’s office or to another campus department. Call ahead, if possible, to check on availability.
  • Follow up with the student, but in a general way, not probing.

Follow-Up and Confidentiality Procedures

Students can be assured that counseling sessions with the campus Faculty Counselor are confidential. We understand that you might be interested in the progress of a student you referred; however, the ability to share information about a student is governed by confidentiality laws and ethical guidelines.

The Faculty Counselor can

  • Answer questions about steps in referring students to counseling
  • Offer information about psychological concerns and problems in general

The Faculty Counselor cannot

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

In some cases, students may find it in their best interest for information to be shared with a faculty, staff, family member, or significant other. This is done with the student’s written authorization, which includes a clear explanation of the purpose and content of the disclosure. An exception to confidentiality would be a counselor’s determination of imminent danger to the student or others.

Reasons for Referral Failure

On occasion, despite good intentions and accurate knowledge of resources, a referral for counseling is not successful. Before you judge yourself, the student, or the referral source too harshly, consider the following possibilities:

  • The student might not have been ready to receive the kind of help offered. Readiness is an essential component of receiving help.
  • There might have been a disparity between the student’s expectations and the actual nature and extent of help provided by the referral source.
  • The referral source might not have been appropriate for the type of help needed.
  • The referral source might not have been aware of the student’s actual needs due to misunderstanding, misinformation, or poor communication.

Student Counseling Services

The Pierce College District provides mental health counseling to enrolled students district wide and are located at both the Fort Steilacoom and Puyallup Campuses. Faculty Counselors are Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC) with the state of Washington. The Pierce College counseling services include the following:

  • Crisis intervention
  • Short-term individual counseling
  • Consultation and referral
  • Campus Outreach (e.g., communication skills, time/stress management, career development, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual abuse, self-esteem issues)

Faculty Counselors are on a faculty contract with limited availability between quarters and during the summer. We suggest calling or emailing before sending a student to the office to verify the availability of the counselor. If the Faculty Counselors on your campus is currently unavailable, please feel free to call the Faculty Counselors at the other location.

Fort Steilacoom

Megan Irby, LMHC
Cascade Building, Welcome Center, Room C301G


Jennifer Wright, LMHC
Gaspard Building, Student Success Center, Room A106H

For emergency assistance, call:

911 or 253-964-6751 for Campus Safety
Located in Cascade Bldg., Room 311, Fort Steilacoom


911 or 253-840-8481 for Campus Safety
Located in, Gaspard Bldg., Room ADM117, Puyallup

If you are unable to reach either Faculty Counselor:

  • For students who are stating suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. You can get assistance from qualified mental health professionals who can assess the student over the phone and determine next steps.
  • For students who are in emotional distress but NOT suicidal, walk the student to the respective campus location for counseling to get the student scheduled for a counseling appointment (FS campus, Welcome Center and PY Campus, Student Success office).
  • Other staff to consult or contact if unsure how to proceed:
    • Julie Draper-Davis, Conduct Officer: 253-912-2331
    • Tami Jacobs, Dean of Student Success (FS campus): 253-964-6581
    • Agnes Steward, Dean of Student Success (PY campus): 253-840-8403

Additional Pierce College Resources

  • Counseling web page
  • Access and Disability Services, Fort Steilacoom, 253-964-6526
  • Access and Disability Services, Puyallup, 253-840-8335 or 253-964-6527
  • Student Success, Fort Steilacoom, 253-964-6705
  • Student Success, Puyallup, 253-864-3227
  • Veterans Resource Center, Fort Steilacoom, 253-964-6364

Community Crisis Resources

  • Pierce County Crisis Team (24/7), 1- 800-576-7764

Additional Crisis Resources

  • Chemical Dependency Treatment Information, 253-593-2740
  • Domestic Violence Helpline, 253-798-4166 or 1-800-562-6025
  • Gang Hotline, 253-798-4800
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • National Eating Disorders Association Hotline, 1-800-931-2237
  • Pierce County Sexual Assault Center, 253-474-7273 or 1-800-756-7273
  • RAINN—Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • Recovery Response Center (Fife), 253-942-5644 or 1-877-780-5222
  • Safe Place Olympia, 24-Hour Crisis Line, 360-754-6300 or 512-267SAFE(7233)
  • Veterans Information, 253-798-7449
  • Victim Advocates (24-7), 1-800-822-1067 or 1-866-857-9889
  • Victim Assistance National Center, 202-467-8700
  • YWCA Domestic Violence Crisis line, 253-383-2593

Community Counseling Resources

  • Greater Lakes Mental Health Center, Lakewood, 253-581-7020
  • Good Samaritan Behavioral Health Center, Puyallup, 253-697-8400
  • Comprehensive Mental Health, Tacoma, 253-396-5800

Faculty and Staff Counseling Assistance