Learn the signs to look for when dealing with students in distress


A crowd of Pitt staff and faculty squeezed into the Sennott Square Seminar Room on Nov. 13 to learn what resources Pitt had available to help students in distress.

Additional Resources:

Pitt Police: 412-624-2121

Resolve Crisis network: 1-888-796-8226

CARS Care Manager: 412-624-5756 or PittCares@pitt.edu

The Pitt Staff Council’s brown bag: “Students in Distress — Staff Resources for Student Care” had presentations from the Care and Resource Support team, or CARS, and the University Counseling Center.

CARS, led by Mary Bigante, care manager, has been assisting students as a formal group for five years. CARS helps students struggling with non-emergency mental health issues find mental health resources.

Bigante explained some main criteria for staff to refer students to CARS, which also can be found on the CARS website:

  • Students whose ability to succeed academically or to function within expected standards as a member of the Pitt community have been negatively impacted by conduct, decisions made by the student, or by challenges of a medical, personal or social nature
  • Students who are impaired in functioning across multiple areas that could benefit from collaboration from a variety of departments.
  • If by suggesting next steps to the student for support, barriers arise which require further assistance to overcome (communication with Office of the Registrar, Residence Life, Student Health, etc.)

If the student meets these criteria, staff are encouraged to contact a CARS team liaison in their respective departments/academic centers or Bigante directly for help.

“The way we sort of think about CARS is that everybody has a vested interest in this student,” Bigante said. “We come together ... and wrap ourselves around the student and come up with a care plan.”

There is not, however, a liaison in each academic department. More information about which schools have a liaison can be found on the CARS website.

Bigante encouraged staff, when reaching out to CARS for assistance, to not go into too much detail about the student’s issues as students can request those comments through FERPA laws. CARS records and correspondence are kept confidential as well.

Bigante reiterated that CARS is not an emergency response team, and emergencies should be directed toward Pitt Police.

CARS also makes sure students give consent for their parents to be contacted, as they can sometimes be the root of the student’s problems, Bigante said.

Kelli Lampe, outreach coordinator for the University Counseling Center, said, citing a study from the American College Health Association, that anxiety is the most common mental health condition reported by students.

“Our students are stressed,” Lampe said. “Most of the experiences that they're having in their current life are in transition.”

Signs to look for in students dealing with anxiety issues include perfectionist qualities, procrastination, missing classes, not finishing exams or assignments, lack of participation and decreased academic performance.

Depression is the other main mental health concern college students have, Lampe said. Roughly one-third of students will show symptoms of depression in a year and only half will seek treatment, she said, citing the ACHA.

Students who are struggling with depression, she said, may have a flat affect, slow speech, difficulty concentrating, decreased academic performance, isolation, irritability, expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness, thoughts of death and self-injurious behavior.

When helping students, it’s also important to calmly communicate with them, support and validate their concerns, and consult with others if one is unsure of what to do, Lampe said.

It’s also important for staff and faculty to examine their own biases when speaking to students who may be in crisis.

And in the event a student is suicidal, Lampe recommended asking the student directly if they are having thoughts of suicide. If the answer is yes, contact the counseling center. But if the student is believed to be in imminent danger, contact the police, she said.

“Support and validate them,” Lampe said. “Thank them for sharing this. Understand their reasons for wanting to die or wanting to live. Help them find hope and remain with them for as long as you possibly can and also consult with your department on what the protocol is there.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.