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October 11, 2001

Academic advisers should know how to identify those in need of counseling

Sometimes it’s an excellent student having a bad term for the first time. Sometimes it’s a student who’s broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes it’s a victim of date rape who is unable to talk about it.

Regardless of the source of a student’s stress, academic advisers are on the front line and should be aware of the signs of emotional distress and when to recommend counseling.

That message was part of “When Students Are Hurting: Overcoming the Fear of Counseling,” a discussion group of Pitt academic advisers and student support services staff that was part of the Oct. 5 Symposium on Undergraduate Advising. (See related story in this issue.)

The session was led by Kevin Bursley, psychologist at the University Counseling Center, and Stephanie Hanville, academic adviser with the CAS Advising Center.

“It’s a scary first step,” Bursley said. “But we need to debunk the myth that only crazy people need counseling.”

The three-part thrust of the discussion was which signals advisers should look for, what advisers should do and what students can expect when they come to the counseling center.

A dozen of the 30-plus participants in the discussion reported incidents of confronting student stress in their jobs. Signs of stress included deteriorating physical appearance, such as poor grooming, complexion break-outs, circles under the eyes, signs of exhaustion; unclear thought; emotional outbursts; slowed, tangential or rapid speech; an inability to verbalize; apathy; irritability, and expressions of hopelessness.

“Advisers tend not to want to pry,” Bursley said. “But you can ask general questions: ‘Do you want to talk some more?’ Saying: ‘It seems you’re having a bad day,’ is not saying ‘You’re really screwed up.’ Ask: ‘Is there anything else going on besides academics that may be stressing you out?’ ‘How long have you been feeling this way?’ ‘Are you getting better or worse, do you think?’ ‘Have you taken steps to resolve the situation?’

“It’s all a way of easing into saying, ‘Have you considered seeing a counselor?’ When people are ready, they’ll go to counseling. You want to facilitate that comfort level,” he said.

Bursley said advisers should not underestimate certain signs of emotional distress.

“If a student is talking about suicide or hurting someone else, take it seriously. Urge them to seek counseling. Follow up with them. Ask how and when to reach them next. Ask about their family and friends. Find out about their support groups. Don’t just wait for your next regular appointment.”

Several participants said emotional outbursts were common, especially among female students.

Bursley said typically men and women deal with stress differently. “Men often get angry, and women often are sad. Men have a harder time verbalizing how they feel.”

Hanville said that a short-term, long-term argument can comfort students. She suggested telling students: “I know things seem bad now, but they will get better. Getting through this period might be difficult, but it will be worth it.”

Bursley said, “When you are seeing someone who is distraught and who’s having a hard time verbalizing it, know that silence is okay. I know your jobs often have that sense of rush: You have appointments all day and you’re already behind. But don’t feel like you have to fill that silence. It actually can work for you, as you gather your own thoughts.”

“There are no boundaries between academic, career and personal counseling,” Hanville said. “I have the philosophy that if a student needs to talk and it’s past the scheduled time, well then I’m just going to be behind with my other appointments. If you have a crying student, give that person a Kleenex, give them a moment. Don’t rush it. Listen and wait.”

One participant said she was dealing with a student in denial. “He just didn’t think anything was wrong, despite his grades slipping, despite my efforts to draw him out. What can I do about that?”

“Look for openings,” Bursley recommended. “Move the conversation back to academics or careers if a person seems to be getting defensive.”

A participant asked what advisers should do if they sense a student has been adversely affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Of course, we’re all affected,” Bursley said. “You want to validate what someone’s feeling, but don’t say it’s hopeless. The counseling center has a web site ( with information about that. It tells people what they can expect as reactions to this. We also offer discussion groups for support.” In severe cases, individual counseling might be appropriate, he added.

When a student has agreed to seek counseling, it’s helpful to tell the student what to expect at the counseling center, Bursley said.

A student first will talk with a receptionist who will probe the magnitude of the distress. In an emergency, appointments are made as soon as possible, normally that day, Bursley said. “If it’s not an emergency, we say that the student will be seen no later than two weeks, but, invariably it’s within one week,” he said.

Students will be required to fill out an informed consent form, and the first counseling session involves gathering background and discussing possible counseling options, such as short-term individual counseling, group counseling, psychiatric evaluations for medication or career counseling.

The center also offers sexual assault services, group consultations and referrals to agencies or private therapists.

Confidentiality is respected. No information is shared without the student’s written permission, unless it is to protect the student or someone else from imminent harm, Bursley said.

The center is accredited by the International Association of Counseling Services and approved as an American Psychology Association Internship site. There are 11 permanent staff members, a consulting psychiatrist and four predoctoral interns on staff.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 4

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