Students in Distress

Recognizing & Assisting Students in Distress: A Guide for Faculty & Teaching Assistants

For many students at the University, personal and academic pursuits provide healthy experiences with positive results. However, for some, high levels of psychological distress and/or risky behaviors, such as alcohol or other drug abuse, occur during the academic year. As a faculty member or teaching assistant (TA), your on-going relationship with students allows you to detect changes in an individual’s behavior that may signal a more serious problem.

You can play a unique role in assisting students through a difficult situation or experience. Students appreciate faculty and TA opinions and you can serve as a reliable source of information about the resources already in place to help them. Faculty and TAs are not expected to diagnose the source of distress or take on the role of counselor. The steps below can help you identify students in need of assistance and provide appropriate referral.

As of July 1, 2015, Virginia state law requires faculty and staff to notify Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) when a student exhibits suicidal tendencies or behavior. If you have any concerns that a student may be suicidal, notify CAPS immediately.

1. Be alert to signs of difficulty.
Academic indicators may include:

  • Deterioration in quality of work
  • A drop in grades
  • A negative change in performance
  • Repeated requests for extensions
  • Missed assignments
  • Repeated absences
  • Disorganized or erratic performance
  • Essays or creative work that indicate extremes of hopelessness, social isolation, rage, fear or despair
Communication indicators may include:
  • Direct statements indicating distress, abuse, personal problems or other difficulties
  • Disproportionate anger or hostility
  • Becoming more withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Tearfulness
  • Expressions of hopelessness, helplessness, fear or worthlessness
  • Expressions of concern about a student in the class by peers
  • Marked changes in eye contact
  • Substantial withdrawal from others
Physical indicators may include:
  • Deterioration in physical appearance or worsening personal hygiene
  • Visible marks on the body
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Visible changes in weight
  • Coming to class bleary-eyed, hung over or smelling of alcohol
Safety risk indicators may include:
  • Written or verbal statements showing a sense of finality or a suicidal tone*
  • Written or verbal communications that indicate fear or abuse by another
  • Previous suicide attempts, violent behaviors (directed at others or objects) or preoccupation with death*
  • Statements to the effect that the student is "going away for a long time" or giving away possessions*
  • Self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors
* Under state law, any of these indicators require CAPS notification.

2. Trust your instincts and take these signs seriously. If you are concerned about a student, it is important to voice your concerns. Do not question or second-guess your instincts. Contact the Office of the Dean of Students or CAPS immediately to discuss possible courses of action or intervention.

3. In talking with the student, share your concerns. Remember that talking about a problem does not make it worse. This is the first step toward resolution. Specifically point out signs you’ve observed and ask what is wrong.

 "I wanted to talk to you because I notice you've been late recently, you no longer participate in class, and you seem distressed. I'm concerned about you. Would you like to know about some of the confidential resources on Grounds?”

4. Listen carefully. Many students will have trouble articulating their difficulties. Be available. Try not to get upset or communicate your own personal judgments. It is not always about having the “right” thing to say, but rather to show care, compassion, and empathy. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said.

5. Assist the student in getting help. Encourage the student to seek professional assistance. You may need to address the student's concerns about counseling:
  • "Most mental health services are covered to different degrees by health insurance."
  • "If you like, we can call to find options for you now.”
  • "Recognizing and being willing to get help for a difficult situation is a sign of strength.”
6. Recognize an emergency situation. An emergency means that the student's basic safety is jeopardized. This may include severe eating disorders, severe substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, or a serious threat from another person. Remember that you are required by state law to notify CAPS of any student exhibiting suicidal tendencies or behavior. Obvious examples that require such notification are marked (*) in section 1. If you are worried about imminent harm, stay with the student and call 911 immediately and then follow up with CAPS. Police are well-trained in psychiatric emergencies and can take students to the Emergency Room for a full psychiatric consultation immediately.

7. Respect confidentiality. Do not discuss the student's name or problem in public areas or with anyone who does not have a direct need to know this information. When talking with the student, avoid making sweeping promises of confidentiality. Students who are suicidal need swift professional intervention. Pledges of absolute confidentiality are not consistent with state law reporting requirements and may make a serious situation more difficult.

8. Follow up. Check in with the student to see if the student is receiving adequate help. Often, students feel even more supported by the follow-up expression of concern than the initial contact.

Developed by the University Advisory Committee on Alcohol and Substance Abuse (2000). Based on materials from the College of William and Mary and SUNY at Cortland. Revised August, 2015.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
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