Counseling and Psychological Services
Information for Faculty and Staff

Recognizing Students in Distress

  • Generally, people show signs that they are struggling with personal concerns or problems. The following indicators may be useful in assessing whether or not a referral should be made:

    Changes in mood, appearance or behavior

    Some students will not directly tell you that there is a problem, but their appearance and behavior can be strong indicators. Deterioration of hygiene or appearance and dress may be visible cues of a problem. Behavioral changes may include a distinct decline in academic performance, poor attendance, an uncharacteristic need for additional attention or repeated requests for extensions. Students experiencing psychological challenges might exhibit angry outbursts, crying episodes, extreme levels of activity or conversations that do not make sense. Students making threats to classmates and engaging in angry, harassing behaviors should not be tolerated and action needs to be taken to stop them. Psychological problems may be driving these behaviors so intervention at this level is also important.

    Traumatic changes in personal relationships

    The death of a family member or close friend, difficulties in important relationships, a divorce or break-up, and changes in family responsibilities might increase stress and overwhelm the individual's usual capacity to cope. If you are aware that a student might be experiencing such a problem, you might wish to initiate a conversation with him or her.

    Drug and alcohol abuse

    Coming to class or a meeting while intoxicated or high is a sign of serious alcohol and/or drug abuse. Individuals often use drugs and alcohol to cope with life stresses and psychological difficulties. Unfortunately, substance abuse frequently causes a further decline in social, academic, and work functioning. If you notice signs of intoxication, do not underestimate their significance. Be aware that abuse of and addiction to alcohol, marijuana, opiates (such as heroin), crack cocaine, and hallucinogenics are problems among college students.

    Academic difficulties

    Students whose academic performance declines to a noticeable degree may be feeling overwhelmed in other areas of life. Some students might exhibit difficulties with concentration in class or performance on exams.

    Learning problems

    Some students find the demands of college-level academic work to be greater than they anticipated. While it is expected that students will go through an adjustment period, those who demonstrate a consistent discrepancy between their ability and performance may need further assistance. Poor study habits, test anxiety, or an undiagnosed learning disability may be affecting performance.

    References to suicide

    If a student talks or writes about suicide, this should be taken seriously. Thoughts of suicide are not necessarily dangerous, but they may indicate that the student is feeling overwhelmed or depressed. To assume that talk of suicide is intended solely to get attention is risky and can be a regrettable mistake. If you become aware of a student who is thinking about suicide, please read over the section Suicide Prevention. Therapists at CAPS are available for a consultation if you are unsure how to intervene or if the student is reluctant to take your referral.

    Leaving school

    When a student indicates that he or she is considering leaving school or transferring, a referral to CAPS may be appropriate. Often a complex number of issues are at play. There may be other issues that need to be addressed rather than a change in schools.