Principles of Good Practice in Dealing with Students in Distress

    By Lee Bird, Vice-President of Student Affairs, Oklahoma State University, and Sheryl A. Tucker, Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate College, Oklahoma State University


    For the graduate school, it started off as a run of the mill situation—an inquiry into the student’s lack of research progress. However, it quickly became apparent that the situation was anything but routine from the bizarre office displays; talk of firearm ownership; disturbing utterances; unrealistic expectations; talk of the overwhelming stress of caring for children and the financial dependence on student loans; and withdrawing from interacting with the research advisor and graduate program staff. Due to the graduate school’s campus-wide relationships already in place, a complete picture of a graduate student’s serious situation began to emerge from the isolated pockets of knowledge that existed throughout campus. Thankfully, issues were mitigated, and the graduate student was provided with the resources to transition into a situation that provided a path forward.


    Many times in the past, the aforementioned scenario as it initially presented would have turned out to be a typical mismatch between the research advisor’s and graduate student’s expectations, with a lack of clarity and articulation of such being a significant contributing factor. Mediating a resolution that allowed the student to continue successfully in the graduate program or to determine how to address a poor fit with the advisor and/or program was an achievable outcome. Today, the complexity of student situations, as noted above, has altered and elevated the importance of the graduate school’s involvement in graduate student lives and/or program concerns.


    While graduate schools are structured very differently across the broad array of higher educational institutions, words that might be used to describe the role of the graduate school’s involvement in student situations previously might have been counselor, mediator, referee, negotiator, peacemaker, etc. One may have even used the word “facilitator,” as many graduate deans view their roles as facilitators of graduate student and graduate faculty success. Yet, as the graduate student population changes, so does the role, and “facilitator” becomes much more encompassing in dealing with significantly more complex graduate student situations. For example, as opportunities for people with physical and mental disabilities have improved, many are now seeking advanced degrees, often encountering the inherent complexities of less-structured academic milestones surrounding the integral research and creative activities of these degrees. In such cases, graduate schools can be facilitators between many campus units with specific expertise that all need to be at the table to address equal opportunities for all graduate students. Beyond the newer responsibilities such as facilitating accommodations for a more diverse student population, the complexities surrounding general student concerns continue to evolve. The need for effective collaboration with student affairs and university legal counsel has never been greater. Not only are student issues more pressing and complex, graduate deans must also ensure compliance with Title IX, Clery reporting and other federal reporting mandates.


    Graduate students face many issues as they work through their master’s, doctoral and professional degrees. Faculty may not be as prepared or willing to address developmental, mental health or social concerns of graduate versus undergraduate students, leaving students and the institution vulnerable. In an interesting article, “Paranoid?, You Must be a Grad Student,” Troop (2011online article) found that “factors common in the graduate-school experience like being a newcomer, unsure of your standing, and knowing that you’re being sized up constantly can ultimately induce social paranoia, a heightened sensitivity to what you imagine others might be thinking about you.” Fogg (2009) also noted that, “Graduate school is gaining a reputation as an incubator for anxiety and depression. Social isolation, financial burdens, lack of structure, and the pressure to produce groundbreaking work can wear heavily on graduate students, especially those already vulnerable to mental-health disorders.” (p. B12). Citing a 2004 University of California at Berkeley study, Fogg noted that 67% of graduate students surveyed said they felt hopeless at least once in the past year, 54% percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning, and 10% considered suicide.


    Stixrud (2012), talking about the impact of stress on the body and mind, noted, “This stress-soaked atmosphere is poisonous to learning, judgment and adaptive functioning—and to the physical and mental health of individuals and organizations.” (p.135). Hillier (in Stixrud, 2012), noted that “although creativity and adaptability are trumpeted as crucial for success, research in animals and humans has indicated that stress markedly compromises the ability to make mental transitions to ‘shift’ and to cope flexibly—as stress induced behaviors are largely reflexive, defensive and stereotyped.” The Stixrud article noted that how people respond to and deal with stress may not only be important for graduate degree completion but also a predictor of success for young professionals in the workplace. Additional factors impacting performance are sleep deprivation and the use of alcohol or other drugs which compound the effects of stress. In addition, chronic fatigue impacts a student’s ability to learn, think and act effectively.


    Stixrud notes there is a strong connection between high levels of stress and mental health problems in people of all ages. Specifically, Giedd (in Stixrud) states “the prefrontal brain systems that regulate higher order cognitive functions do not appear to be largely mature until, on average, age 25 and the systems that mediate emotional control are not fully wired until even later.” Younger, less mature graduate students may not have the emotional strength or stability necessary to function independently or to supervise others without proper supervision by faculty members. More troublesome is the Brownson Study, which found that 47% of graduate students who considered suicide in the last year did not tell anyone and 52% did not seek professional help. Relationship problems were rated as the most pressing problem followed by academic, financial and family problems. Brownson (in Fogg, 2009) noted that, “…graduate students often feel the strain of juggling multiple roles, such as being a spouse, parent, and caregiver to an older parent, usually while bringing in very little income.” Balance is difficult when perfectionism is the order of the day, and according to Fox (in Fogg, 2009), “graduate schools tend to reward students who go way overboard on work even if that means jeopardizing other aspects of their lives.”


    So what does this imply for the care of graduate students on campus? Graduate schools need to be leaders in creating a campus culture that ensures that graduate students are not abused or harassed and feel comfortable sharing their concerns with caring faculty, staff and administrators who model best practice behavior.


    Graduate students face unique challenges. Jankowski, founder of PhinisheD, an online support group for graduate students, found “Grad students are in a remarkable position of powerlessness” (in Fogg, 2012). Isolation due to work and study schedules and academic competition combines with other stress related issues to create a potentially toxic environment. Faculty have a great deal of control over academics (grading, supervising scholarly work, etc.) and students, especially international students, may be unwilling to confide in a faculty member about a personal concern such as stress or harassment they may be experiencing. Graduate faculty may not feel they have the time, expertise or energy to help or that they should not be involved in a graduate student’s personal life. However, many studies have shown that a positive relationship with key graduate faculty, such as the mentor, and the use of campus support services is critical to graduate student success. Referrals by faculty members make it “okay” to seek help.


    Graduate faculty need to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress or other problems and be willing to refer students to counseling or other appropriate campus units, such as the student affairs and graduate schools offices. Not only can such units help manage referrals; they may be willing to sponsor events to help reduce graduate student stress and help students create better support systems. Programs on stress management, sleep and nutrition or even those that just provide opportunities for social interaction are common on most campuses, but may need to be tailored with graduate students in mind.


    Good Practice for Dealing with Students in Distress:

    • Proactively build relationships with different campus departments that deal with distressed students including student affairs and university legal counsel
    • Offer programs designed to relieve stress and promote social interaction among graduate students
    • Provide outreach, resources and training to graduate faculty, with a focus on mentoring and problem solving
    • Provide training to graduate school staff, graduate program staff and GTAs/GRAs regarding campus resources and working effectively with distressed students
    • Become aware of and stay compliant with federal mandates: Clery, Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act, etc.


    It is also important to note that Mori (2000) observed, “Besides the normal developmental concerns that every student may have, international students encounter additional stressors due to the demands for cultural adjustment.” Moreover, research conducted by Hyun (2007) indicates that 44% of international graduate students experienced emotional, stress-related problems that significantly impacted their well-being or academic performance within the last year. Unique international student stressors identified by Mori were linguistic, academic, interpersonal, financial and interpersonal adjustments. Mori also noted that while these students have significant issues, they are more likely to underutilize mental health services. Several studies have noted that there may be several reasons for this including concern about the cost of treatment, and the cultural stigma associated with seeking help. Yakunina (2012) indicated that the unique challenges faced by international students (termed acculturative stress) leads to negative outcomes for international students including depression, anxiety and somatic symptoms. On a positive note, Yakunina’s research indicates that these students’ experiences have produced both hardiness and a developed universal-diverse orientation skill (defined as students’ openness to and appreciation of similarities and differences in others) that can be tapped to help moderate current issues. In addition, Hyun’s research indicated that higher financial confidence and a positive, high functioning relationship with the faculty advisor were key factors in the level of stress they experienced. Therefore, graduate schools, in collaboration with graduate faculty, staff and other campus units, have the opportunity to facilitate resources (training, programming, etc.) that promote a healthy graduate education environment.


    Coordination and collaboration between the graduate school and student affairs division is most critical when situations escalate. Irrespective of what the campus threat assessment team (e.g., Behavioral Consultation Team, BCT, or Behavioral Intervention Team, BIT) is called, the responsibility of the modern threat assessment team is to provide the careful and contextual identification and evaluation of behaviors that may raise concern or may precede violent activity on campus (Deisinger 2009). Incidents involving graduate students should trigger a call to the graduate school whether their staff serves on the threat assessment team or not. Coordination of information rests with the team, and gathering accurate and timely information regarding graduate students can be greatly aided by regular consultation with the graduate school. Such teams are dependent on administrators, faculty, staff (including graduate teaching and research assistants, GTAs/GRAs) and fellow students to report students of concern.


    According to Deisinger (2009), while the method of reporting may vary by campus, key facts and impressions of faculty regarding students in crisis can help the team provide “… a proactive, collaborative, coordinated, objective and thoughtful approach to identify, assess, intervene and manage situations that may pose a threat to the campus community or to themselves ” (p. 26). Graduate faculty must be trained to recognize and report their concerns and not err on keeping concerns solely inside the department. According to Van Brunt (2014), angry and upset graduate students may be more hostile with peers and perceived subordinates than with faculty with whom they work, conduct research or are evaluated by. It is worth mentioning that Van Brunt (2014) also notes that while meeting hostility with reason may seem emotionally counterintuitive, it may prevent the incident from escalating.


    For the threat assessment group, the process feels like collecting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to determine what the “whole” looks like. From this information, contact, assessment, referral to counseling or other actions can be coordinated and the situation assessed. Cases continue to be assessed until there is no evidence of a threat or the person leaves the university through attrition or graduation. This jigsaw puzzle analogy can also describe the role of the graduate school in piecing together concerns brought to their attention about student situations, like the aforementioned scenario. Proactive efforts by the graduate school can lead to facilitating graduate student and faculty awareness of needed resources or potentially to understanding the need for threat assessment team involvement. Many times, it is the graduate school that is in the best position to see the developing picture early on, whereas other entities may only have single pieces of the puzzle.


    Most campuses offer training to faculty about how to manage hostile or threatening incidents on campus, and Van Brunt (2014) provides an excellent guide specifically for faculty. It is also important that training be more comprehensive than just threat assessment and address the wealth of topics touched on here. Additionally, it is imperative to ensure that training is provided for graduate school staff, graduate program staff and GTAs/GRAs. Training resources, beyond campus expertise in student affairs, faculty development, human resources, general counsel offices, etc., can include Council of Graduate Schools and Association for Student Conduct Administration (ASCA) workshops and conflict resolution and mediation programs through law schools, local governments and municipalities.


    Working in a constantly changing environment makes the challenges even greater and not just in providing training to diverse groups. Relationships are critical for knowing about and addressing graduate student situations. These relationships have been increasingly jeopardized as key administrators and staff turnover at a frequency not seen in the past. The constant redevelopment of working relationships with interim, new and sometimes vacant critical positions can delay responses and resolutions. Therefore, it is even more incumbent that graduate schools be an active partner with student affairs to provide campus-wide leadership to address graduate students in distress. As a group, these entities are experienced and well-positioned to continue to evolve and adapt to address graduate students issues, even as the internal and external situations change.


    Ultimately, graduate students can benefit from training, programs and services (counseling, stress reduction programs, low cost social and cultural programs and activities, support groups, etc.) provided by units such as student affairs and graduate schools, but nothing can replace or duplicate the most essential relationship—that of the graduate faculty mentor with the graduate student—and significant attention and resources must be focused there. Everyone’s willingness, to be involved in making the graduate school culture more humane and in making timely referrals when necessary, may not just improve graduate degree completion—these efforts may save a life.




    Deisinger, G., Randazzo, M., O’Neill, D. & Savage, J. (2009). The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams. Alexandria, VA: Applied Risk Management.

    Fogg, P. (2009). Grad-school blues: Students fighting depression and anxiety are not alone. The Chronicle Review, 55(24), B12.

    Hyun, J., Quinn, B., Madon, T., & Lustig, S. (2007). Mental health need, awareness, and use of counseling services among international graduate students. Journal of American College Health, 56(2), 109-118.

    Mori, S. (2000). Addressing the mental health concerns of international students. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78, 137-144.

    Stixrud, W.R. (2014). Why stress is such a big deal. Journal of Management Education, 36(2), 135-142.

    Troop, D., (2011). Paranoid? You must be a grad student. Retrieved from:

    Van Brunt, B., & Lewis, W. S. (2014). A faculty guide to addressing disruptive and dangerous behavior. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Yakunina, E.S., Weigold, I. K., Hercegovac, S., & Elsayed, N. (2013). International students’ personal and multicultural strengths: Reducing acculturative stress and promoting adjustment. Journal of Counseling & Development, 91, 216-223.

    This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of GradEdge.


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