Identifying and Referring the Distressed Student

The college years can be very stressful for many students. In the contemporary climate of competition and pressure, some students adequately cope with these stresses, but others find that stress becomes unmanageable and interferes with learning. In some cases, these students may even disrupt the learning of others.


Many students initially seek assistance from faculty or staff members. Below are guidelines for identifying students in distress:

  • excessive procrastination and very poorly prepared work, especially if inconsistent with previous work

  • infrequent class attendance with little or no work completed

  • dependency (e.g., the student who hangs around or makes excessive appointments during office hours)

  • listlessness, lack of energy, or frequently falling asleep in class

  • marked changes in personal hygiene

  • impaired speech and disjointed thoughts

  • repeated requests for special consideration (e.g., deadline extensions)

  • threats to others

  • expressed suicidal thoughts (e.g., referring to suicide as a current option)

  • excessive weight gain or loss

  • behavior which regularly interferes with effective class management

  • frequent or high levels of irritable, unruly, abrasive, or aggressive behavior

  • unable to make decisions despite your repeated efforts to clarify or encourage

  • bizarre behavior that is obviously inappropriate for the situation (e.g., talking to something/someone that is not present)

  • students who appear overly nervous, tense or fearful



If you notice any of the above behaviors, consider the Counseling Center as a resource and discuss referral with the student.

  • Talk to the student in a private and safe setting.

  • Approach the student in a gentle, caring, and non-judgmental way.

  • Express concern. Be as clear as possible in stating your observations and reasons for concern.  Describe specific behaviors.

  • Listen carefully to everything the student says.

  • Repeat the essence of what the student has told you so your attempts to understand are communicated.

  • Avoid criticizing or sounding judgmental.

  • Suggest a visit to the Counseling Center.

  • Explain that “normal” people get counseling.

  • When referring students to the Counseling Center, suggest it is a possible resource rather than telling a student to go because he or she “needs help” or is “causing a problem” for others.

  • Present the Counseling Center as a resource used by over a hundred students a year.

  • Explain that receiving counseling can be like “taking a class” to learn about yourself.

  • Remind students that they do not have to have a “deep, dark” problem nor does the problem need to reach crisis proportions for them to benefit from professional help.  We would rather have someone come in with a small problem than wait for it to become a big one.

  • Reluctant students might also be relieved to know that they can just speak to a counselor on a one-time basis without making a commitment to on-going therapy.

  • Remind the student that the services are free and the same service in the private sector can cost between $75 and $125 per hour.

  • Inform the student that Counseling Center staff members try to help people to help themselves.

  • Remember that many students will feel ambivalent about seeking help from any source, including the Counseling Center.  You may need to remind them, “What you are currently doing to solve your problems is not working.  The Counseling Center staff can assist you with problem solving.”

  • Remind the student that they do not always have to know what is wrong before asking for help.

  • Their ambivalence can often be characterized by statements such as, “I don’t want to go there because my problem isn’t that serious.”  Or, “I don’t want to go there because I think my problems are too serious and they can’t help me.” In either of the two preceding cases, the person you are trying to refer may be fearful of the unknown.  A direct response to such objections can sometimes be helpful. “If your problem is not appropriate for the Counseling Center, they can make sure that you are directed to the right place.”

  • Suggest the student call or go to the Counseling Center to make an appointment, giving the telephone number and location to them at that time.  If you want to offer extra support, you can have the student call the Counseling Center from your office. Our extension is 3609, and we are located in B&E 126.

  • It is usually most effective to assist the student by calling for an appointment with the student present. When you reach the Counseling Center receptionist, identify yourself as a faculty or staff member and ask for an appointment for the student. The student’s name is required for the appointment. You may request a specific staff member or the receptionist can assign one.  Write down the appointment time, date, and counselor’s name for the student.

  • If you feel the situation is an emergency or urgent enough to require immediate attention, after identifying yourself as faculty or staff, tell the receptionist that the student needs to see a counselor immediately. Give the receptionist the student’s name, then ask to speak with an available staff member.

  • It may be necessary for you to walk the student to the Counseling Center.

  • If you are concerned about a student but unsure about the appropriateness of a referral, feel free to call the Counseling Center at x3609 or 803-641-3609 for a consultation.

  • If the student resists referral and you remain uncomfortable with the situation, contact the Counseling Center to discuss your concern.

The Counseling Center, a division of Student Life and Services, is part of a comprehensive program of student services. The Counseling Center has as its primary purpose the prevention of psychological difficulties and treatment of the mental health concerns of its students. The Counseling Center also seeks to assist in the creation and maintenance of a university environment that will foster the well-being and personal development of its members. Counselors at the Center practice under the Ethical Guidelines put forth by the American Counseling Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Psychological Association. 


In order to see a counselor, a student can visit the Counseling Center or call 803-641-3609. If there is an emergency situation, the student will be seen on arrival. Otherwise, an appointment will be made for him or her. During this first visit, a counselor will work with the student to determine how and where his/her needs can be best met. A referral to an individual counselor, to a group, or to another agency can be made when appropriate. 

The Center can offer emergency consultation (when school is in session) and after regular business hours for trauma and life-threatening situations such as suicide and sexual assault. To activate the system, page the director at (803) 827-2336. 

Atudents currently enrolled in courses may receive counseling services free of charge. Although staff and faculty are encouraged to use the Counseling Center for consultation about student difficulties, services for staff and faculty are provided by the Employee Assistance Program which can be accessed 24 hours a day by calling (800) 922-5651.

Ask the student. Because counseling is confidential, we cannot inform you if the student you are concerned about came to the Center or reveal what they talked about. Therefore, the best way to find out if the person came to the Center is to follow up with the individual yourself. If you feel that it is vital for you to learn (from the counselor) whether the student came to the Center, ask the student to sign a release of information form when they are here, thereby giving us permission to confirm with you that they came.


  • Individual and group counseling

  • Brief therapy

  • Couples therapy

  • Crisis intervention

  • Medical and psychiatric referral

  • Study skills counseling

  • Time management counseling

Counseling Center 
Business & Education Building, Suite 126
University of South Carolina Aiken
471 University Parkway
Aiken, SC 29801
(803) 641-3609


Monday through Friday  8:30 am – 5:00 pm

For an after-hours emergency, please call University Police at x6111 or 803-648-4011.