April 25, 2013Vol. 43, Issue 2

What to Say to Students in Distress

Training Available for Faculty and Staff

Juni Banerjee-Stevens

Juni Banerjee-Stevens

“I just broke up with my boyfriend.”

“My family situation is awful.”

“I’m broke. My parents just took out a second mortgage, and we still can’t afford tuition.”

Staff and faculty who work with students often hear these kinds of statements from students. They may be passing complaints—or signs of a student in severe distress. The trick is to know which.

“Generally, students don’t say, ‘I’m thinking about to killing myself,’” says Juni Banerjee-Stevens, a counselor at the Counseling and Wellness Center. “There are no ‘red flags’ usually, just these invitations from students who are telling you about how their lives are not going well.”

Banerjee-Stevens is the project manager for a $250,000 grant from the California Mental Health Services Administration (CalMHSA) that supports, among other projects, training for faculty and staff in dealing with these “invitations.” Thanks to the grant, the Counseling and Wellness Center has also bolstered its mental health outreach efforts in order to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention, educate the campus about mental health issues in college students, and challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“We know that a student in emotional distress is much more likely to access help through ‘frontline’ faculty and staff than through formal mental health services,” says Banerjee-Stevens of why the grant-funded efforts have focused on bystander and gatekeeper intervention. “A distressed student may build enough trust with an RA, professor, or roommate to disclose that they are in pain and need help. Our goal is to prepare everyone on campus who is in contact with students to help when necessary.” 

That preparation comes in the form of a virtual gatekeeper training program called “At Risk.” The 45-minute course walks you through how to talk to students at risk and how to intervene. It is available to all Chico State students, staff, and faculty via the “Help a Student” link on the Counseling and Wellness Center home page.

Opening the door to a conversation about suicide makes the student realize that you are comfortable with them and their problems.

Banerjee-Stevens likens these skills to CPR, a way to support students in distress while you work to get them to professional help. “We aren’t asking you to do brain surgery,” she says. “But it is important that you can identify students who are hurting and direct them to professional help.”

One tip that Banerjee-Stevens has for faculty and staff is that we don’t shy away from asking the “hard question”: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” People hesitate to do that, for a variety of reasons, she says, including “that asking makes it worse, that then you have to talk to the student for three hours, that you will put the idea in their head.” 

On the contrary, she says. Opening the door to a conversation about suicide makes the student realize that you are comfortable with them and their problems—and it enables you to direct them to the Counseling and Wellness Center.

Another program funded by the CalMHSA grant is a peer education program called WellCat Fit. The program pairs students who are being treated for depression, anxiety, or low mood with an “exercise buddy.” The goal of this program is not necessarily to achieve physical fitness goals. Rather, the student and his/her buddy work together to increase physical activity enough to reap the mental health benefits. “The bonus, of course, is that the program helps the student build the interpersonal connections that depression and anxiety tend to destroy,” says Banerjee-Stevens. Chico State students who have participated in WellCat Fit so far have demonstrated significant improvement in their overall mood and functioning.

“The recent deaths that have impacted our community have illuminated how important it is to proactively reach students before their behaviors become problematic…or deadly,” says Banerjee-Stevens. “With the help of the CalMHSA grant and continued support from the university administration, we are convinced that we can create an infrastructure that promotes mental health and wellness for our students.”

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications