Helping Distressed Students
As faculty and staff, you come into contact with many students on a daily basis. You
are on the “front lines” of the university and are in an excellent position to observe
students, identify those who may be in emotional distress and offer assistance to
You may be the first (or only) person who recognizes that a student is not functioning
well, either academically or personally. What can you do when you suspect a student
may need help? How involved should you be? What is your appropriate role? Where do
you draw the boundaries? When do you need to consult with someone else?
While you are not expected to assess and treat mental health problems, you are in
a position to recognize distress or troubling behavior, and may be the best person
to direct the student to the most appropriate resource. Reaching out to students is
a powerful gesture which not only helps students personally, but enhances their academic
This site is designed to acquaint you with the resources on campus that can assist
you in helping students in distress and to guide you in making a referral to helping
professionals. In addition, there is a section outlining suggestions for dealing with
specific types of emotional problems.
Helping Student in Distress: General Guidelines
In today’s society we have seen that there can be tragic results when a person, often
due to underlying psychological problems, feels pushed beyond his or her ability to
tolerate the stresses of life. Students dealing with personal issues or problems tend
to show signs that they are struggling in some way. Taking the step to assist a student
can save a life…perhaps many lives. An individual who is distressed often wants help
but doesn’t know how to ask.
Signs of a Student in Distress
- The student seems excessively sad, anxious or irritable.
- There is a marked change from the student’s normal baseline of behavior. A typically
strong and engaged student might start procrastinating, turning in poorly prepared
work, missing class or meetings or avoiding class or group participation.
- There are marked changes in a student’s appearance, such as deterioration in grooming,
hygiene, or avoiding class or group participation.
- It seems likely that the use of alcohol or other substances may be interfering with
a student’s performance or relationships.
- There is a marked and persistent change in energy level. The student might seem listless,
fall asleep frequently in class or meetings or show acceleration in speech and activity.
- The student’s behavior regularly interferes with the decorum or effective management
of your class, program or office.
- The student seems unusually dependent, helpless or hopeless.
- The student’s thoughts, speech or actions seem bizarre or unusual.
What you can do for a student in Distress
- Talk to the student in private. Find a comfortable, private place to talk.
- Listen carefully. 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 comfortable about what to do next.
- Inform the student of your concern in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. Give
specific examples of the behavior patterns you’ve observed that lead you to feel concerned.
Ask open ended questions. The student may choose not to answer, but may feel relieved
to know you are trying to understand.
- Avoid criticizing or sounding judgmental.
- Ask if the student has ever talked about his or her problem with anyone else, including
- Don’t feel compelled to find a solution. It is not your job to find a solution or
to engage in personal counseling. Often, listening is enough.
- Suggest that the student can get more help, if needed.
Don’t hesitate to ask for support from the Dean of Students Office, SCAPS or Student Health.
Read the completed guide for Faculty and staff for assisting distressed or troubled