IT Teaching Resources

Faculty role in responding to the acutely distressed college student

A study on the importance of promoting mental health and implementing suicide prevention models

Article Research Promising practices

Title: Faculty Role in Responding to the Acutely Distressed College Student
Author: Lisa Schwartz

Key points

  • The prevalence of distress in college students is increasing, but it can be hard to notice the indicators of a distressed student in an online environment
  • Traditional methods of training may not be conducive to addressing mental illness in online environments
  • Faculty need to pay attention to more subtle factors, such as turning in late assignments, decreased participation in the course, to probe further and monitor students’ well-being

The acutely distressed student, one who exhibits disturbing or disruptive behavior that is outside of the norm of other students due to significant mental illness and who may be at risk to harm oneself or others, poses considerable challenges to today’s higher education institutions (Amanda, 1994; Jed Foundation, 2006; McKinley & Dworkin, 1989). This study was a qualitative, interpretive exploration of the factors that influence the intentions of faculty to respond to the acutely distressed college student. Hopefully, by identifying these factors, institutions can better empower faculty to participate in campus-wide mental health promotion and suicide prevention strategies. Using an interview protocol framed by Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), the salient beliefs influencing the intentions to respond to the acutely distressed college student of 20 full-time, instructional faculty at a single institution were elicited. The TPB served as an effective theoretical framework with which to elicit these beliefs, yet there were several factors beyond the TPB which were identified that appeared to also influence the faculty’s intentions. Recent mental health promotion and suicide prevention models for higher education institutions stress the need for training of gatekeepers in the signs and symptoms of acute distress and suicidality (Jed Foundation, 2006; National Mental Health Association/Jed Foundation, 2002), however, the factors identified in this study that appear to influence faculty’s intentions may be less amenable to traditional strategies, such as training promoted campus-wide. Thus, the recommendations provided take into consideration these factors, along with other findings of the study, and suggest alternative strategies that may be more effective.

What would this look like in a course?
  • To the extent possible, faculty should monitor participation closely, especially in classes with fewer than 15 students. For larger classes, the instructor and TA should distribute responsibility.
  • If the faculty notices troubling behavior, he or she should follow up with the student, with a caring, compassionate email, for instance. Instructors should communicate to the student that they value the student in class and are there for them if needed.
  • Be aware of campus mental health resources, such as CAPS at Vaden Health Services, and be able to refer students to those resources.

Schwartz, L. S. (2010). Faculty role in responding to the acutely distressed college student (Order No. 3397181). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; Publicly Available Content Database. (305209778). Retrieved from