Counseling and Psychological Services
February 28, 2015


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Tips for Faculty and Staff

Hearing from Others that a Student is Thinking of Self-harm or Harming Others

Dealing with Disturbing Content from Students

Faculty and teaching assistants often seek consultation regarding disturbing comments or revelations in student writings or artwork. Such content often includes self-disclosure about abuse or trauma, bizarre content in e-mail messages, dangerous threats or pronouncements, or art work reflective of traumatic events or violence. Students in question may or may not also exhibit bizarre or disruptive classroom behavior.

The aim of the following information is to assist faculty and teaching assistants in identifying and acting on such matters.  We do not presume to predict behavior. This information should only be used as a guide for appropriate referrals.

  1. What are some of the indications of student disturbed content?
  2. Consultation with Counseling and Psychological Services.
  3. Should I talk with a student about my concerns?
  4. Some suggestions on how to respond.
  5. Student Concern Intervention Team (SCIT)
  6. What if this is an emergency?

1. What are some indications of student disturbed content?

  • The organization of written material may exhibit a bizarre, incoherent, or dreamy quality. Often the written content moves from item to item in an associative rather than a linear fashion, exhibiting more of a symbolic rather than a logical thought process.
  • Often there may be a preponderance of dark, negative, or jarring themes and images. Sexual themes, violence and death may be eerily but unskillfully portrayed.
  • Frequent use of profanity.
  • The work is a dramatic departure from the student's social demeanor or apparent affect.

We realize there are many ways in which an individual expresses him/herself; however, the presence of such features in student work may indicate an effort, albeit distorted and unconscious, to communicate something of deep personal importance. The recommendation is that the educator seek consultation with appropriate department supervisors and the Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) before confronting the student directly.

2. Consultation with Counseling and Psychological Services.

When we receive your call a CaPS Clinical Therapist will take your call immediately if someone is free or will call you back as soon as possible. If you believe it may be an emergency situation, let the secretary know this and either the Director or Clinical Supervisor will take your call. The number is 665-2574. You are also invited to e-mail* the Director or other staff member.

There may be occasions when it is appropriate to obtain additional information about the student in question, or have him/her come to CaPS for assessment. In such cases, the necessary steps will be taken to arrange this. In accordance with the requirements of confidentiality, it will not be possible for CaPS to reveal any clinical data that may exist regarding the student - or even if the student is a CaPS client. We will, however, consult with you and provide some suggestions for follow-up.

The central question will be to determine if the student's expressions are evidence of severe mental illness, if the student is a danger to self or others, or if some type of treatment or intervention is warranted. Whenever appropriate, CaPS will work closely and consult with the Dean of Students and University Police.

In the past, consultation and/or assessment in such cases has revealed the existence of an emotional problem. At other times, however, we have found that some students were unaware that they had created a problem for others, or were unintentionally violating cultural or social norms. Regardless of the student's understanding of the impact of their work on others, it is important and appropriate to evaluate aberrant or potentially dangerous student expression and, if necessary, intervene.

*Please note that e-mail cannot be guaranteed to be a confidential means of communication.

3. Should I talk with a student about my concerns?

An effort at conversation is generally advisable.

One danger in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings would be a climate of fear and distance between teachers and students, especially students who seem odd, eccentric, or detached. Research on violence prevention suggests schools and colleges need more cross-generational contact, not less. Remember as well that research has also shown that (1) there is no psychological profile for a school-shooter, and (2) students are far more at risk for self-harm than at risk to harm others.

4. Some suggestions on how to respond.

Faculty are a great resource to their students. Students feel more comfortable talking and a more likely to share troubling issues with faculty with whom they have a good relationship.

In responding to students showing disturbing behavior, exercise judgment on a case by case basis, preferably after consultation with colleagues, your department chair, and/or CaPS. As a general rule, do not give assurances of confidentiality. You do not need to respond immediately to e-mail, notes, or calls from the student if you do not feel comfortable doing so.

If the appropriate opportunity presents itself, you should express your concern about the content of the work to the student. You might suggest to the student that you would like to delay grading the assignment until you and the student can discuss things further - this also provides you with time to consult as necessary. The reaction of the student to this form of intervention may elucidate the nature of the student's motivation and increase their awareness of the behavior. It will also help you determine if the student was merely acting sensationally, immaturely, or was merely unaware or insensitive to appropriate socio-cultural or university norms.

Keep copies or documentation of all communication with the student. Factual feedback to the student will depend on having an accurate record of agreements, comments, e-mails, etc.

For further suggestions of how to respond to students and make appropriate referrals, see How to Refer to CaPS.

5. Student Concern Intervention Team (SCIT)?

SCIT, organized by the Dean of Students, is comprised of campus administrators from the Office of the Dean of Students, University Police, Student Health Services, Residence Life, Substance Abuse Services, and Counseling and Psychological Services. Active for the past several years, SCIT members meet monthly to discuss issues pertaining to student concerns and safety. Staff and faculty members who wish to bring a topic or concern to SCIT may contact the Office of the Dean of Students, at 665-5375.


6. What if this is an emergency?

In cases of emergencies, contact University Police first. They may be reached on-campus by dialing 911.

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