About Distressed and Distressing Students

Indicators of Psychological Distress

Two Key Principles essential to making a valid assessment are frequency and intensity.

The more indictors involved, and the more frequently they are present and apparent, combined with the more noticeable (or intense) the indicators are, the more likely distress is truly present.

  1. Appearing sad or depressed most all of the time
  2. Behavior and appearance that is notably changed from usual. This is particularly concerning when hygiene and grooming are notably neglected or appearance is bizarre or unusually flamboyant.
  3. Unusual or chronic social withdrawal, isolation or awkwardness. For individuals in which this is more typical, it would be more concerning when combined with other indicators. It is also important to note if other students tend to avoid this individual or seem uncomfortable interacting with him/her.
  4. Expressions/statements that suggest a sense of hopelessness. This is more significant when accompanied by overt statements regarding suicide — "I just can't do this anymore"; "Nothing matters anymore"; "I hate my life"; "I wish I were dead." etc.
  5. Preoccupation with themes of death and/or suicide in speech, written, or other communication. Also notable are themes of violence and harm to others, direct or indirect.
  6. No sense of humor, especially when accompanied by interpersonal hyper-sensitivity. This can be evidence of paranoia, rigidity in thinking, or a low tolerance level for stress.
  7. Unusual and/or excessive absences from class, work, or other activities.
  8. Significant deterioration in academic performance in a student, especially when work shows evidence of lack of interest or energy.
  9. Inappropriate and seemingly excessive hostility or anger, especially when directed at others.

What To Do Once A Distressed Student is Identified

Invite the student to talk with you in a time and place which allows for privacy. You may need to indicate to the student that you are concerned as a rationale for the meeting. Email or a paper note may help the student "hear" your concern with a minimum of discomfort or embarrassment and may even prompt a quite candid response.

Start by asking the student about his/her general functioning ("How are you doing?", or "How are classes going?").

Share your observations and the fact that you are concerned about the student. State your concerns in direct, matter-of-fact statements (i.e., "Phil, you look so sad and seem withdrawn lately. I'm worried that you might be depressed."; or "Your essay seems filled with violent images and themes. I'm concerned about what underlying thoughts and feelings you might be trying to communicate, and I'd like to talk to you more about that.")

Ask directly and simply about suicide — "Are you thinking about suicide?"

If the student minimizes or questions your concerns, be gently honest in pointing out the contrasts between the student's self-report and your observations (or reports from others).

If student acknowledges that issues are there, then the goal is to connect student with appropriate help. For psychological/emotional issues, this usually means Counseling Services. If the student resists that suggestion, you might suggest Student Health Services , as it may seem less psychologically focused, which is off-putting or stigmatizing for some.

The best option may be to call Counseling Services right there with the student present and ask to speak with a counselor, to arrange to walk over with the student or to schedule an appointment for the student. Often the extra effort to facilitate the referral reduces the student's anxiety. It's also helpful to remind students that counseling is confidential and that they can discontinue any time if they don't like it.

If the student is reluctant and you have no immediate concern for his/her safety, suggest that the two of you talk again to "check in" in a day or two.

If you feel that you cannot let the student leave your presence without significant risk of self-harm, say so to the student. At that point, state that you are going to call Counseling Services and ask a counselor to come and join the two of you.

Common Sources of Student Distress

  • Family Problems
  • Financial or legal difficulties
  • Problems with a romantic partner/spouse
  • Academic Difficulty
  • Alcohol or other Drug Problems
  • Stress and Anxiety
  • Depression

Signs & Symptoms of Distressed Students

  • Excessive absences or tardiness, especially when uncharacteristic
  • Leaving the lecture early
  • Missing deadlines
  • Deterioration of hygiene or grooming
  • Inappropriate emotional response
  • Crying
  • Overt inattentiveness
  • Emailing with excuses frequently
  • Appears troubled or confused
  • Seems withdrawn or avoidant
  • Lacks motivation/concentration
  • Demonstrates bizarre behavior
  • Writes/talks about suicide or hopelessness

Signs & Symptoms of Disruptive Student

  • Demanding special treatment
  • "I paid for this..." mentality
  • Challenging authority
  • Frequently hostile or suspicious
  • Overt lack of attention (i.e., reading newspaper in class)
  • Making offensive remarks
  • Inappropriate chattering to others
  • Talking out of turn or dominating discussions
  • Shuffling backpacks and notebooks, or coming in and out of class
  • Displays dangerous conduct
  • Makes verbal/physical threats to others