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Students in Distress: A Guide for Faculty & Staff

Adapted with permission from George Washington University Counseling Center

Many students experience stress or personal difficulties during their academic careers which may include issues such as adjusting to college life, meeting academic requirements, family pressures, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, or more serious mental health issues. While most students are able to cope with these challenges, some may feel overwhelmed to the extent that it impedes their academic or personal growth.

Faculty and staff are in a unique position to recognize students who may be in distress. You are on the front lines, witnessing the early signs of distress as they are played out on campus and in the classrooms. Students are also likely to initially seek assistance from faculty and staff members, particularly when they see you as available and willing to listen. Your support and guidance may be critical in saving their academic careers or in some cases their lives.

This information is provided to help you recognize some of the symptoms of a distressed student and provide you with some tips on how you can help. Further, the BSU Counseling Center is available to assist you with problem situations and to consult on how to intervene with a particular student.

Signs a Student May Be in Distress

At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. The following list identifies symptoms which if repeated or severe may suggest that the student is becoming distressed and would benefit from assistance.

Change in Academic Performance or Behavior

  • Abrupt decline in quality of work or class preparation
  • Poor attendance
  • Repeated requests for assignment extensions
  • Change in level of class participation
  • Excessively anxious when called upon
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Change in level of concentration or motivation
  • Difficulty with attention or memory
  • Disjointed thoughts, impaired speech

Unusual Behavior or Appearance

  • Depressed or lethargic mood
  • Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
  • Swollen or red eyes
  • Change in personal hygiene or dress
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Strange or bizarre behavior indicating loss of contact with reality
  • Extreme fatigue or difficulty staying awake in class
  • Exaggerated emotional response such as unwarranted anger or hostility
  • Evidence of alcohol or other drug dependence or abuse

References to Suicide, Homicide, or Death

  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Overt references to suicide
  • Isolation from friends or family
  • Homicidal threats

Any of these may occur in students' verbal or written statements.

What Can You Do?

If you choose to approach a student you are concerned about or if a student reaches out to you for help with personal problems, here are some suggestions which might make the opportunity more comfortable for you and more helpful for the student.

Talk to the student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied. Give the student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel cared about as an individual and more confident about what to do.

If you have initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, non-judgmental terms. For example, "I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned," rather than "Where have you been lately? You should be more concerned about your grades."

Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Communicate understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has told you. Try to include both content and feelings ("It sounds like you're not accustomed to such a big campus and you're feeling left out of things.") Let the student talk.

Give hope. Assure the student that things can get better. It is important to help them realize there are options, and that things will not always seem this hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy, or professionals on campus. Recognize, however, that your purpose should be to provide enough hope to enable the student to consult a professional or other appropriate person and not to solve the student's problems.

Avoid judging, evaluating, and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion. Such behavior is apt to push the student away from you and from the help he or she needs. It is important to respect the student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.

Maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations. It is important to maintain the professional nature of the faculty/student or staff/student relationship and the consistency of academic expectations, exam schedules, etc. If necessary, personal assistance can be arranged for clients through the Counseling Center.

Refer. Give the student a Counseling Center brochure. Let them know that services are confidential. In making a referral, it is important to point out that: 1) help is available, and 2) seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure. It may be helpful to point out that seeking professional help for other problems (medical, legal, car problems, etc.) is considered good judgment and an appropriate use of resources. For example, "If you had a broken arm, you would go to a doctor rather than try to set it yourself." If you can, prepare the student for what they might expect (link to what to expect page) if they follow your suggestion. Tell them what you know about the referral person or service.

Follow-Up. Arrange a follow-up meeting with the student to solidify their resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist them in this process. Check later to see that the referral appointment was kept and to hear how it went. Provide support while the student takes further appropriate action or pursues another referral if needed.

Consult When in doubt about the appropriateness of an intervention, call the Counseling Center. A student whose behavior has become threatening, violent, or significantly disruptive may need a different kind of approach.