Helping Distressed & Distressing Students

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Students who are in distress can display a variety of symptoms that are cause for concern including being unengaged in class discussion, seeming to be very down or hopeless, and not attending class for several weeks with no explanation. Students who are in distress can become distressing to others when their behavior starts to disrupt classes or cause others to feel concern about the students’ wellbeing and others’ safety. Mental health professionals, school administrators, and security personnel are active participants in university communities. However, these specifically trained individuals are not always present when a distressing situation occurs, for example in a dining hall, classroom, residence hall, or other campus location.

The purpose of this brochure is to provide all community members a basic understanding of how they can best help a student in distress. Effective communication and coordination among campus faculty and staff are important in providing appropriate resources and responses to distressed students. Students are also important in promoting a healthy campus community and in helping a friend or peer.

Community Interventions for Distressed and Distressing Students

There are three steps a community member can take towards helping a distressed or distressing student:

  • Identify when an individual is in distress, or when someone is distressing others.
  • Consult with a professional.
  • Engage the individual or community in a solution.

In some cases, taking these steps may be simple; in others, the process may feel more complex. This brochure outlines ideas and challenges associated with each concept, and provides guidelines for community members to follow.

Identifying Distressed Students

It is important to recognize when a student might be in enough personal distress that he or she is in need of help. Common concerns that cause student distress may include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol/substance misuse, relationship issues, and serious academic concerns. A student may experience a “general” type of psychological distress that may not fall into a specific category, but one that is still significant and troubling. One common indicator of distress is a dramatic or significant change from previous functioning.

In some situations, a student communicates their troubles to others in a clear, unambiguous, or obviously distressing manner. One such situation is when a student verbally expresses or physically acts out a desire to harm themselves. Another is when a student actively states or physically poses a threat to others in the community. Of course, sometimes a student’s distress is not communicated in a clear, unambiguous way.

Whether a student is experiencing some form of general psychological difficulty, or whether the student becomes distressing to the community by posing a potential danger to self or others, the ability of the community to identify a person of concern is the first step towards engaging that individual and providing needed assistance in a helpful, productive manner.


Because psychological concerns are common and because threats to self or others are often unmistakable, individuals in distress are often readily identified by most people. Sometimes, however, signs of distress can be hidden from the community. In either case, it can be difficult to know what the next step should be, and at times it can be intimidating. How, then, should a community member proceed?

If you have begun to wonder if a particular student is distressed, you may feel the need to consult with a mental health professional. Trust your instincts. The Counseling Center is available to consult with faculty and staff who are concerned about the well-being of a student. The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allows faculty and staff to consult with mental health professionals whenever there is a concern about a student’s well-being. These conversations will generally remain confidential except in situations where there are concerns about a student’s safety or the safety of others.

Types of questions that are common during Counseling Center consultations regarding members of our community include:

  • Should I be concerned about my friend?
  • How can I get help for someone I know?
  • I’ve seen someone cutting/vomiting/crying (etc.), but they don’t want help. What should I do?
  • I’m nervous about some bizarre emails that I’ve been getting, and I don’t feel safe anymore. Who can I talk to?
  • I know someone who told me in confidence about hurting themselves. Can the Counseling Center call them?

There are many versions of the types of questions represented above. The Counseling Center is ready to discuss any situation—regarding community members or distressed individuals during a consultation meeting or phone call.

Engaging the Student

When a student in our community concerns us, it’s important that we know how to offer that person a helping hand. The Counseling Center can advise you through the various ways to engage distressed members of the community. Here are some basic ideas to keep in mind when engaging with a student in distress:

Keep it simple. Be clear, concise, and direct in your communication. You do not have to be a mental health professional to help. After your initial consultation, contact the Counseling Center for further advice if necessary.

Hear the problem. Issues that cause enough distress to raise the concerns of others are rarely “trivial.” Listening to a person non-judgmentally can be an important part of helping.

Be honest. It is important to share your concern directly, without judgment or fear. This often provides an opportunity to connect the student with further resources.

Ask to help. Invite the student to continue the conversation and to ask for help from others. Provide and discuss available mental health resources on campus with the student and encourage them to seek professional help if appropriate. A respectful, collaborative approach can be a meaningful experience for someone in distress.

Follow Up. If appropriate and if there is no threat to you, stay involved and in communication with both the student and any mental health professionals with whom you have consulted. If a situation or conversation becomes difficult, remember that you don’t have to agree or disagree with an individual. Although your efforts to help may be resisted or rejected, refrain from argument. It is best to respond to troubled individuals with honest, nonjudgmental feedback, and in a manner that will allow for personal follow-up and professional resources.

Threatening or Suicidal Students

Individuals who threaten to harm themselves or others represent unique challenges to the campus community. Consultation with the Counseling Center, another mental health professional, or law enforcement is urged in any situation that includes a threat of suicide, homicide, or other physical harm.

Want to Know More?

Check out the websites for your university’s Counseling Center or Police Department. If a student is in need of immediate assistance, please call 911.

Get help ASAP

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They also offer a chat option through their website,