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When and How Should We Intervene in Students' Lives? Critical Conversation #3

Health, Safety, and Well-being
November 8, 2015

In what circumstances should student affairs staff intervene in students’ lives in college? What should be the goals and limits of such interventions? What are some of the most effective approaches for assisting students to manage stressful situations in college?


Many students encounter serious dangers and stresses in the college environment including sexual assault, racism & sexism, alcohol and drug abuse as well as many pressures to succeed academically and socially.  Most colleges and universities seek to provide a safety net of services and programs to prevent serious problems and also to support students when they do encounter them.  The boundary line between respecting students’ autonomy and independence as adults and intervening when they are having problems is sometimes a murky one in the college setting.  In this Critical Conversation, we explore the role of intervention in students’ lives in college and the strategies and limits that should guide student affairs staff in this role.


Marty Swanbrow Becker & David Drum are the JCC Focus Authors for November 2015. They authored the featured invited article, "Essential Counseling Knowledge and Skills to Prepare Student Affairs Staff to Promote Emotional Wellbeing and to Intervene With Students in Distress" in the upcoming Journal of College & Character November 2015 issue.

Here is Marty and David's response:

Student affairs staff is well positioned to promote student development, and much of their time is spent intervening in the individual lives of students to support them.  Yet, the line between respecting students’ autonomy and intervening in their lives is indeed murky, particularly so when staff continually works with students in crisis. The high allocation of resources to meet the needs of individual students typical of most campuses is not surprising considering the high levels of distress, depression, suicidal issues, assaults, and poor self-care experienced by many students.

While such individual support is important, we propose that without more resource allocation towards population interventions, such individual support is unsustainable. Student demand for support will continue to outpace the supply of student affairs staff time, many students in need of support do not access the support available, and over-allocation of resources to meet the needs of individuals can cause staff to miss many opportunities to raise the well-being of the broader student body. Additionally, students are often hesitant to self-identify when they have needs and tend to turn to their peers rather than professionals for support, leaving student affairs staff in a position of continually reacting to crises rather than helping students address problems early.

We propose that colleges must allocate more resource and attention to creating a campus ecology and population-focused prevention campaigns that raise the overall health status and resilience of the study body. These interventions would move beyond providing a safety net of services to creating a campus culture that actively promotes student growth and reduces destructive forms of stress.

To support the broader student body, student affairs staff are responsible for implementing changes on campus that may impact students’ autonomy and independence, but ultimately help most students thrive.  Such a balance of imposing interventions on the population highlights the “prevention paradox” as described by Geoffrey Rose, where preventive measures that help the community may not benefit each person and, conversely, interventions that help individuals may not significantly impact the population. Imposing interventions on students that are designed to raise the wellness of the broader population, even if contrary to the individual needs of many, is required in order to support students before they find themselves in a crisis state. Through population-based interventions it may be possible to

·       reduce some sources of unproductive stress (i.e., stress that creates wear and tear on the individual but does not contribute to self-efficacy, resilience, or educational goals) by focusing efforts to reduce common institutional barriers to academic success, unnecessary academic pressures, competition, and distress, etc.;

·       reduce the prevalence of stressors that can produce posttraumatic stress reactions (i.e., stressors that create long lasting vulnerabilities to emotional and physical health disorders) by improving peer based awareness and bystander intervention programs and working to shift aspects of campus culture to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault, homophobia, bias incidents, etc.;

·       develop on-campus recovery support communities designed to reduce relapse for those in recovery, including addictions, depression, suicidality, and eating disorders, such as creating collegiate recovery communities and mental health support groups tailored to students recovering from an eating disorder or from a suicide attempt; and      

·       create classroom learning environments and living environments that are collaborative and intellectually and interpersonally affirming (i.e., improve the yield in students’ sense of belonging, self-efficacy, and coherence of self) through incorporating learning communities where students become part of a cohort having classes together.

A shift towards allocating more resources toward improving the campus ecology and implementing population-focused interventions would ultimately reduce the level of distress on campus and free up student affairs staff time to work with the fewer students experiencing crisis.  When we intervene with students in crisis, we do so when they are most at risk and the situation may require significant imposition on their autonomy. With proactive intervention, we take actions that impose on the autonomy of many students who are not at risk, yet this is needed to further the end goal of preventing student crises on campus.

We welcome your reactions to these points.

(Go to Critical Conversation #1 and Critical Conversation #2)