Tips for Recognizing a Student in Distress

The following are indications that a student may be experiencing significant emotional distress:

Academic Indicators

  • Failure to do assigned work or poorly prepared work, especially if inconsistent with previous work
  • Excessive absence or tardiness
  • Marked inattentiveness or sleepiness in class
  • Signs of intoxication during class, at work or other inappropriate times

Psychological or Physical Indicators

  • Noticeable change in personality
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene
  • Frequent crying
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Alcohol and/or other drug use or abuse
  • Listless, lethargic, “depressed” appearance
  • Noticeable anxiety or panic
  • Impaired speech and disjointed thoughts
  • Bizarre behavior that is obviously inappropriate for the situation (e.g., talking to something/someone that is not present)
  • Frequent or high levels of irritable, unruly, abrasive, or aggressive behavior
  • Self-injurious behavior (e.g., cutting, burning)
  • Direct or indirect reference to suicide, preoccupation with death and morbid subjects

Interpersonal Indicators

  • Social withdrawal
  • Threats to others
  • Concerns expressed by peers, faculty, staff, or others

How to Help

A student who is distressed might not be aware of University  or other services or may be reluctant to seek them. You can make a critical difference by talking with the student about your concerns in a caring manner. Whether you reach out to a student because you’ve noticed some signs of distress or the student approaches you directly, here are some suggestions for how to respond to a student in distress.

Talk to the student in a private setting when you both have time and are not rushed. Just a few minutes of active listening may help the student feel cared about and more confident about what to do.

Be direct with expressing your concerns in behavioral, non-judgmental terms. For example, I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class a lot” or “You’ve been crying a lot lately and it looks like you have lost some weight – I’m concerned about you.”

Listen to the student. Silence or crying are ok. Don’t feel as though you need to be an expert or offer a solution. Seek to understand what they are sharing. Avoid too many questions and acknowledge the student’s distress -“I understand that you’re angry,” or “I hear that you have concerns that you’d like addressed.”

Give hope that things can get better. Let the student know that you’re going to do what is within your limits in order to help address their concern (e.g., “Let’s work together to figure out a solution,” or “If I can’t come to a solution that works for both of us, I’ll do my best to find someone who can help us out.”).

Refer to Student Concerns Outreach, 336-278-7200 or Counseling Services, 336-278-7280. It may be helpful to point out that seeking help is a sign of strength and to normalize reaching out and accessing resources. Approximately 13% of the Elon student body utilizes Counseling Services each year.

If the student is in crisis and needs assistance Counselor-on-Call 24/7 by calling Campus Safety and Police at (336) 278-5555 and the staff will connect them.

Consult with campus resources. You don’t need to try to help a student alone. If a student is not receptive to seeking services and you continue to be concerned, you may submit an online student concerns report. The information you provide will be shared with the Student Concerns Team and may be used to help link a student with resources and/or respond if a student’s behavior is creating an unhealthy or unsafe situation for themselves or others. You may also contact Student Concerns Outreach, 336-278-7200 or Counseling Services, 336-278-7280 to consult about how to proceed.

Follow-up with the student later to see whether or not they followed your referral recommendation and to see how they are doing. Please note that due to confidentiality, Counseling Services staff cannot verify if a student has accessed services without the student’s written consent.

What to Do in an Emergency or if a Student is Experiencing a Crisis

As with medical emergencies, if a student is experiencing a psychological emergency call 911 for immediate assistance. (e.g., suicidal behaviors, violence or threats of violence toward others, self-injury needing immediate medical attention, mental confusion or disorientation, out of control behavior, significant impairment by drugs or alcohol)

Students experiencing a psychological crisis should call Campus Safety and Police at (336) 278-5555 and ask to speak to Counselor-on-Call. Campus Safety and Police will transfer the caller to the Counselor-on-Call who will complete a brief risk assessment of the situation and recommend steps for additional support or follow-up to ensure safety. This may include a referral to the hospital for an in-person assessment and may include the involvement of University administrative staff. The Counselor on Call provides crisis management interventions, not counseling/therapy after hours.

Resources and Contact Information