Recognizing Distressed Students

Faculty and staff are often in the most direct position to identify students in distress. Moreover, in your role you are perceived by some students as role models, mentors, advisors and a source of support. Your expression of interest and concern may be critical in helping a student re-establish the emotional equilibrium necessary for academic success.

Students, like anyone, might experience a crisis when the stress exceeds their coping resources. While it is understandable that one might be upset, depressed or anxious in a given situation, the following signs might indicate that the response is persistent and is more than just ‘situational.’

Academic Signs

  • Decline in quality of course work and class participation
  • Deficient reading speed or comprehension
  • Poor study habits
  • Disruptive behavior in class
  • Incapacitating test anxiety
  • Repeated requests for special consideration
  • Increased absences from class
  • Creative work or writings indicating extreme hopelessness, despair, anger or isolation
  • Lack of alternative goals when failing
  • Chronic indecisiveness or choice conflict

Physical Signs 

  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Attending class appearing bleary-eyed, hung over or smelling of alcohol
  • Deterioration in personal appearance
  • Observable signs of an injury

Threat to Safety Signs

  • Homicidal threats, expressed verbally or through written content (e.g. assignments, papers etc)
  • Direct reference to suicide or indirect cues (e.g. assignments, papers etc)
  • Behavioral cues suggesting a suicide plan (e.g. giving away possessions, suicide note, accessing means to kill oneself etc)
  • Violent or extremely disruptive behavior
  • Stalking behaviors
  • Giving away treasured personal belongings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

Suicide Warning Signs

  • Homicidal threats, expressed verbally or through written content (e.g. assignments, papers etc)
  • Direct reference to suicide or indirect cues (e.g. assignments, papers etc)
  • Behavioral cues suggesting a suicide plan (e.g. giving away possessions, suicide note, accessing means to kill oneself etc)
  • Violent or extremely disruptive behavior
  • Stalking behaviors
  • Giving away treasured personal belongings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

Interpersonal Signs

  • Isolation from friends, family and classmates
  • Unwillingness to communicate
  • Inability to sleep or excessive sleep
  • Unexplained crying or outbursts of anger
  • Irritability, aggressiveness, agitation, nonstop talking
  • Excessive or irrational worrying (at odds with reality or probability)
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that aren't there; beliefs or actions at odds with reality or probability)
  • Poor communication (garbled and slurred speech, disjointed and unconnected thoughts)
  • Feelings of shame, guilt and/or poor self esteem
  • Irrational feelings of persecution

Stressor Signs

  • Problems with roommates, family, or romantic partners
  • Experiencing a death of a significant other
  • Experiencing a physical or sexual assault
  • Experiencing discrimination based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disabilities
  • Experiencing legal difficulties
  • Any other problem or situation that is experienced as a loss or stress

Responding to Distressed Students

The best ways to respond depend upon the urgency of the situation. For students who are having difficulty, but seem able to cope fairly well, you may choose not to intervene, to limit your interaction to the classroom issue, or to deal with it on a more personal level. If you judge a situation to be more urgent or an emergency (e.g. threat to safety/high risk cues), you can call SCC to consult with a clinician or direct the student to the Emergency Room with the assistance of the campus police.