Penn State Intercom......March 21, 2002

Faculty, staff can be resources
for students who are in distress

By Allison Kessler
Public Information

A student sits crying quietly at the back of the classroom. A student's grades fall dramatically over a short period of time. A student comes to office hours to discuss matters other than course work. knapp

Are these students simply having a bad day, or are they in need of help?

It isn't always easy to identify students who are struggling with more than just their grade point averages, let alone point them in the right direction for help. But the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which sees more than 2,000 students annually, hopes to make it easier for faculty and staff to reach out to students who might need more than a tutor.

The workshop -- Students in Distress -- available through Health Matters in the Office of Human Resources, describes the important role faculty and staff can play in identifying and referring students who experience emotional distress or academic difficulties due to psychological or behavioral problems. The program, developed and facilitated by CAPS, takes a close look at symptoms of students in distress; guidelines and language for intervention; available counseling services for students; and referral and follow-up methods.

"Many departments send several members to these workshops," said Dennis Heitzmann, CAPS director. "They might have some experience in recognizing a problem, or already may have experienced a situation and want to be prepared for the next time something similar happens."

A key component of the workshop is promoting an awareness of the available counseling services available to students on campus, Heitzmann said.

"A professor may observe a student do great work, but then run into problems. They come to these workshops seeking other ways to assist," Heitzmann said. "Faculty and staff are the gatekeepers for our services."

Those services are broad. The center sees students for a number of different problems, spanning from mood disorders such as depression; circumstantial problems such as a relationship break-up; and other problems such as eating disorders. Staffed with psychologists, a psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioners, social workers and specialized therapists, CAPS is prepared to address a wide array of situations.

Visiting students head to the second floor of the Ritenour Building for an initial consultation. Here, they have the opportunity to tell their stories, and express in confidence what it is that is troubling them at the moment.

"Sometimes the problem is a clear-cut situational problem," Heitzmann said. "However, presenting concerns run the gamut from clear and circumscribed to amorphous mood states."

Upon the conclusion of the initial consultation, CAPS staffers decide if and what type of further action needs to be taken to best help the student. Sometimes only a couple more visits are needed to alleviate the student's problem, or a referral to the community for more intensive or longer-term therapy may be merited. Often, students find group therapy best suits their needs.

CAPS offers more than 50 groups annually, among the longest list of group offerings of any university center in the country.

Groups persist in being a favored form of therapy among students. These help sessions include groups addressing topics of graduate students and returning adults, women, eating disorders, sexual assault recovery, relationships between men, stress reduction, family issues, substance dependence, depression and biracial issues, among others.

"Students often find they can learn from one another, which helps them to learn about themselves," Heitzmann said. "These therapy groups recognize that fundamentally we're more alike than we are different. You look around and it appears that everyone else is doing just fine. The reality is, however, that everyone, from time to time, encounters difficulties that could interrupt their lives or present unique challenges. The groups inspire you to believe that there are solutions to life's problems. Group therapy is the crucible to change."

In times of high-profile, traumatic events, such as the September terrorist attacks, CAPS raises its visibility to further a notion of hope. When a situation arises, the center sets up stations in common areas like the HUB-Robeson Center, where any scared or upset students can come to talk.

"CAPS recognizes that because of the potential for emotional overload, there are times when a student's ability to adapt or engage in corrective action will be impaired," Heitzmann said. "We can help students work through their problems more efficiently than they might without this resource. Consider us a tool or resource that they can use. We're plugging them into their own resources -- resources that faculty and staff can help students find."

Allison Kessler can be reached at