Ask an Expert: Dr. Shanda Riley, UNT Dallas

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Dr. Shanda Riley, UNT Dallas

UNT System HR is bringing UNT World experts directly to you with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Dr. Shanda Riley, Assistant Director of Counseling & Wellness Center and Adjunct Professor, UNT Dallas
EXPERTISE: Therapist and social worker with 20 years of clinical experience; K-12, Higher Education

A Southern California native and UCLA graduate, Dr. Riley joined UNT Dallas in 2016 and oversees the counseling services provided to undergraduate and graduate students. This past year has presented plenty of new mental health challenges for students, faculty, staff and even experienced mental health professionals. We sought Dr. Riley to help faculty and staff detect warning signs that a student might be struggling emotionally due to the pandemic or other factors, ways to assist a struggling student, as well as best practices for ongoing self-care as we all attempt to manage the daily stresses we face.

Q: What are some warning signs to detect that a student is experiencing some difficulties as a result of the pandemic and/or other factors?
Dr. Riley: We all have been experiencing some challenging times due to the pandemic, and to add to these difficult times was the recent winter storms and power outages that left many families without electricity and/or water, and some with damage to their homes. When many are faced with challenges such as these, it may often impact our UNT World community emotionally and mentally, and particularly our students. As a faculty or staff member, there are some important warning signs for you to be aware of that students might exhibit as a result of a major life crisis. Therefore, being able to identify warning signs and having some guidelines to address the situation can be extremely helpful. When students are in distress, including currently being impacted by the pandemic, there are some common behaviors to look for while considering three levels of stress:    

LEVEL 1: These behaviors may signal that something is wrong, even if the student is not disruptive to others:

  • Serious grade problems or a change from consistently good grades to poor performance
  • Excessive absences, especially if the student had previously demonstrated good, consistent class attendance
  • Unusual or markedly changed pattern of interaction, i.e., totally avoiding participation, becoming excessively anxious when called upon, dominating discussions, etc.
  • Other characteristics that suggest the student is having trouble managing stress, include a depressed, lethargic mood; being excessively active and tentative (very rapid speech); red, swollen eyes; marked change in personal dress and hygiene; sweaty (when room is not hot); and falling asleep inappropriately.

LEVEL 2: These behaviors indicate stronger emotional distress, as well as a reluctance of the student to seek help/support:

  • Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions, especially if the student appears uncomfortable or highly emotional disclosing the circumstances prompting the request
  • New or regularly occurring behavior which pushes the limits of decorum and which interferes with the effective management of the immediate environment
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response which is obviously inappropriate to the situation.

LEVEL 3: These behaviors usually indicate that a student is in obvious crisis and needs emergency care:

  • Highly disruptive (hostile, aggressive, violent, etc.); inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, unconnected or disjointed thoughts)
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things which aren’t there, beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability)
  • Overtly suicidal thoughts (referring to suicide as a current option)
  • Homicidal threats.

Q: What is the best way to assist a student who you believe is struggling academically and/or emotionally?
Dr. Riley: College students are often faced with stress and anxiety for various reasons. Some causes of stress and anxiety can be due to academics, family problems, social situations, financial concerns, as well as being in a crisis. While some students cope well with the demands of college and life, there are others that become overwhelmed and struggle with managing or finding a balance between the two. As a faculty member or staff, being able to support and assist students as they face these challenges can have a tremendous impact on their academic success and their overall well-being. 

Once you recognize that a student is experiencing some difficulty and you have identified the warning signs that are associated with it, it is now time to directly assist the student and/or refer them to the appropriate professional to assist them with their needs. 

  • What to do when you suspect a student is struggling academically and/or emotionally due to stress:  
    • Talk to the student in private when you both have time and not in a rush or preoccupied. It is important that you give the student your undivided attention. By you effectively listening can make a big difference in the student feeling comfortable about what to do next
    • Be direct and nonjudgmental. For example, you can say, “I noticed that you have been absent lately and I am concerned, instead of “Why have you been absent a lot lately?” 
    • Listen sensitively. Listen to the student’s thoughts and feelings in a caring manner. Relay your understanding by repeating back to the student the essence of what they have shared with you.
    • Refer. Inform the student that there is help available to them. Provide the student with places they can go for help. 
    • Follow up. This is an important part of the process. Check in with the student at a later time to see how they are doing, and provide the necessary support. 
  • What to do when you suspect a student is in a crisis: If you believe that a student is in imminent danger to themselves or someone else, immediately call 911. If a student is in crisis, but you believe that they are not in imminent danger, please contact the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas at 214-828-1000 or the North Texas Behavioral Health Authority’s Crisis Hotline at 1-866-260-8000 for assistance and support that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the student’s crisis is COVID-19 related, contact the North Texas Behavior Health Authority’s COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line at 1-833-251-7544 which is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Q: What are some things that I can do for ongoing self-care, and to help me manage any challenges that I might be facing?
Dr. Riley: When working with students, especially those who are in distress, faculty and staff can also experience stress themselves. Not to mention your personal life can create challenges for you as well. As a result, you may find it difficult to have a work-life balance in addition to managing the various challenges that you might be facing in your life. With that being said, it is imperative that you take care of yourself, too. It is definitely OK for you to take time out of your day to do things that you enjoy. Some self-care activities that you can engage in and incorporate into your daily routine are: breathing exercises, meditation, listening to music, reading, some type of physical exercise such as walking, riding a bike, working out, gardening, Yoga, getting a massage, journaling or talking with a friend or loved one that you feel comfortable with and trust. You can also seek support from your colleagues and supervisor. It may also be beneficial to speak with a counselor. Counseling services are available and free of charge for faculty and staff covered by your health insurance benefits through the Employee Assistance Program. If you are interested in counseling, please visit the Employee Assistance Program page or call 800-343-3822.