Identifying Students who Need Assistance

Individuals express their emotional distress in different ways.  In this section, you will find information describing different forms of emotional distress, as well as the symptoms of each.  This section of the website also offers you suggestions on what you might do to assist a student who is experiencing certain symptoms.


The Depressed Student

Depression, and the variety of ways it manifests itself, is part of a natural emotional and physical response to life’s ups and downs.  With the busy and demanding life of a college student, it is safe to assume that most students willDistressed Girl experience periods of depression in their college careers.  When the depressive symptoms become so extreme or are so enduring that they begin to interfere with the student’s ability to function in school, work or social environment, the student will come to your attention and be in need of assistance.

Students with depression often respond well to a small amount of attention for a short period of time. Early intervention increases the chances of the student’s rapid return to optimal performance.

There are several symptoms of depression.  Remember, a person does not have to exhibit all of these symptoms to meet the criteria for depression. Here are some of the indicators that you might observe:

  • Tearfulness or general emotionality
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Markedly diminished academic performance
  • Significant lack of confidence or poor self-esteem
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Dependency (a student who makes excessive requests for your time)
  • Infrequent class attendance
  • Lack of energy or motivation; unusually fatigued
  • Increased test anxiety or performance anxiety
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene
  • Significant weight loss of gain
  • Signs of alcohol or drug use


  • Let the student know you are aware she/he is feeling down and you would like to help.
  • Encourage the student to discuss how she/he is feeling with someone they trust.
  • Offer to assist the student by referring her/him to the College Mental Health Program for personal counseling.


  • Minimize the student’s feeling (e.g., “Don’t worry.” “Everything will be better tomorrow.”)
  • Bombard the student with “fix it” solutions or advice.
  • Chastise the student for poor or incomplete work.
  • Be afraid to ask the student whether she/he is suicidal.

The Suicidal Student

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.  It is important to view all suicidal comments as serious and to make appropriate referrals.  High risk indicators include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, futility
  • A severe loss or threat of a loss
  • Feeling alienated or isolated
  • History of drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • History of mental illness
  • A previous suicide attempt
  • A suicide plan and the means to carry out that plan
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Writing about suicide or death (i.e., poetry, letters, journal)


  • Take the student seriously – 80% of people who complete suicide give a warning of their attempt.
  • Be direct – ask if the student is suicidal, if she/he has a suicide plan, if she/he has the means to carry out the plan.  These questions actually decrease a person’s impulse to carry through with their plan.
  • Be available to listen.
  • Activate the Crisis Intervention Team by contacting the Student Health Center (ext. 4606) or the Counseling & Special Programs office (ext. 4572).
  • Call the Campus Police at ext. 4444 if the threat of suicide is imminent.


  • Assure the student that you are her/his best friend; instead, agree that you are a stranger, but even strangers can be concerned.
  • Be overly warm and nurturing.
  • Flatter or participate in their “games” – remember, you don’t know their rules.
  • Be cute or humorous.
  • Challenge or agree with any mistaken or illogical beliefs.
  • Be ambiguous.

The Anxious Student

Anxiety is a normal response to a perceived danger or threat to one’s well being.  For some students the cause of their anxiety will be clear, but for others it is difficult to pinpoint.  Regardless of the cause, the following symptoms maybe experienced:

  • Rapid heart palpitations; chest pain or discomfort
  • Dizziness, sweating, trembling or shakiness
  • Sweating; cold, clammy hands
  • Difficulty concentrating; difficulty making decisions; mind going blank
  • Feeling “on edge”; restless; irritable
  • Sleep problems; easily fatigued
  • Excessive worrying

In some extreme cases, students may experience a panic attack in which the physical symptoms occur so spontaneously and intensely that the student may fear that she/he is dying.


  • Let the student discuss her/his thoughts and feelings.  Often this conversation alone relieves a great deal of pressure.
  • Provide reassurance.
  • Be clear and directive.
  • Provide a safe and quiet environment until the symptoms subside (refer student to Health Center SSC 177 for resting room).
  • Offer to assist the student with a referral for on-campus personal counseling.


  • Minimize the perceived threat to which the student is reacting.
  • Take responsibility for the student’s emotional state.
  • Overwhelm the student with information or ideas to “fix” her/his condition.

The Student in Poor Contact with Reality

These students have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, the dream from the waking state.  They may frighten or alarm others because of their behaviors.  However, they are not generally dangerous and tend to be very frightened and overwhelmed.  In broad terms, their symptoms may include:

  • Illogical, confused or irrational thinking
  • Incongruent or inappropriate emotional responses
  • Bizarre, disturbing behavior
  • Seeing, hearing or feeling things that others do not see, hear or feel (hallucinations)
  • Elaborate reports of being persecuted, of being loved by another person, or of having a great but unrecognized talent or discovery (delusions)


  • Activate the Crisis Intervention Team by contacting Student Health Center (x. 4606), the Counseling & Special Programs office (x. 4572), or Campus Police (x. 4444)
  • Respond with warmth, kindness and firm reasoning.
  • Remove extra stimulation from the environment (e.g., turn off the radio, step outside of a noisy classroom).
  • Acknowledge your concerns, state that you can see that the student needs help.
  • Acknowledge the student’s feelings or fears without supporting the misperceptions (e.g., “I understand you think someone is following you, but I don’t see anyone and I believe you are safe.”).
  • Focus on the “here and now.”  Ask for specific information about the student’s awareness of time, place and destination.
  • Speak to their healthy side.  It is OK to laugh and joke when appropriate.


  • Argue to try to convince them of the irrationality of their thinking.  This commonly produces a stronger defense of their false perceptions.
  • Play along (e.g., “Oh yeah, I hear the voices, too.”).
  • Encourage further discussion of the delusional processes.
  • Demand, command, or order.
  • Expect customary emotional responses.

The Abusive and/or Violent Student

Students who become abusive and/or violent are often in frustrating situations that they see as beyond their control.  Their anger and frustration is taken out on the nearest target.  These students’ behaviors are their way of trying to gain power and control in an otherwise out-of-control situation. Students’ abusive and/or violent behavior is often associated with their use of alcohol and/or drugs. Look for:

  • Explosive outbursts; threats
  • Ongoing belligerent, hostile behavior; defiance
  • Verbal or physical abuse; yelling, screaming, clenched fists
  • Attempt to dominate others (e.g., in group projects or presentations)
  • Feeling frustrated, agitated and/or agonized over perceived failures, often followed by periods of melancholy
  • Bitterness and resentment towards others’ successes
  • Inappropriately focusing on self; exhibitionism
  • Being at the end of one’s rope or endurance limit


  • Remember, safety first.  If you or your students are in danger, call the Campus Police (x. 4444 or *80 from a campus pay phone).  Do not stay alone with the student if you do not feel safe.
  • Stay safe.  Have easy access to a door, keep furniture between you and the student, and keep the door open if at all possible and appropriate.
  • Acknowledge the student’s anger and frustration (e.g., “I hear how angry you are.”).
  • Rephrase what the student is saying and identify her/his emotion (e.g., “I can see how upset you are because you feel your rights are being violated and nobody will listen.”).
  • Reduce stimulation; invite the student to talk to you in a safe, quiet place, if appropriate. Make certain that a staff or faculty person is nearby and accessible.
  • Allow the student to vent her/his feelings and to tell you what is upsetting her/him.
  • Be directive and firm (e.g., “Please lower your voice.  I cannot listen to you when you yell and scream.” Or “You certainly have the right to be angry, but breaking things is not OK.”).
  • File an Incident Report with the Vice President of Student Services.  Familiarize yourself with Administrative Regulation 5401 procedures for further disciplinary options and actions.


  • Get into an argument or shouting match.
  • Become hostile or punitive (e.g., “You can’t talk to me that way!”).
  • Press the student for explanations about her/his behavior.
  • Ignore the situation.
  • Touch the student.

The Demanding Passive Student

Typically, even the utmost time and energy given to these students is not enough.  They often seek to control your time and believe the amount of time received is a reflection of their worth. You may find yourself increasingly drained and feeling overly-responsible for this student. The demanding passive student may:

  • Have difficulty making everyday decisions
  • Need an excessive amount of reassurance, advice, nurturance and/or support
  • Need others to assume more than their share of responsibility
  • Have difficulty initiating projects or working independently
  • Consistently lack self-confidence in her/his judgment and abilities


  • Let the student make her/his decisions.
  • Set firm and clear limits on your personal time and involvement.
  • Offer referrals with other sources of support, both on campus and in the community
  • Set a time limit on your discussions with the student.


  • Get trapped into giving advice.
  • Give special considerations (e.g., frequent extensions on assignment deadlines).
  • Avoid the student as an alternative to setting and enforcing limits and boundaries.

The Student Suspected of Substance Abuse

Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive drug. Alcohol abusers in college populations often also abuse drugs, including both prescription and illicit drugs.  While patterns of use are affected by fads and peer pressure, the currently preferred drug-of-choice among college students is alcohol.  The effects of alcohol on the user are well known to most of us.  Alcohol and/or drug abuse by a student is most often characterized by:

  • Irresponsible, unpredictable behavior
  • Missed assignments, poor class attendance
  • Poor quality of work compared to student’s ability
  • Spaced-out and/or disheveled appearance
  • Belligerence, mood swings (e.g., agitation followed by depression)
  • Smells of alcohol; hand tremors
  • Legal problems
  • Interpersonal and/or social interaction problems


  • Confront the student with the behavior that is of concern.
  • Address the substance abuse issue if the student is open and willing.
  • Offer concern for the student’s overall well-being.
  • Remind the student that she/he is prohibited from being on campus while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs (Administrative Regulation 5401).
  • Refer student to Student Health Center or Counseling and Special Programs for personal counseling
  • Call Campus Police (x. 4444 or *80 from any campus payphone) if student is clearly under the influence.  File an Incident Report with the Vice President of Student Services.  Familiarize yourself with Administrative Regulation 5401 for further disciplinary options and actions.


  • Convey judgment or criticism about the student’s suspected substance abuse.
  • Make allowances for the student’s irresponsible behavior.
  • Ignore signs of alcohol and/or drug intoxication in the classroom.

The Suspicious Student

Typically, these students complain about something other than their psychological difficulties.  They often come to the faculty member’s attention because they:

  • Are generally tense, anxious and mistrustful
  • Are isolated and have few friends, if any
  • Tend to interpret minor oversights as significant personal rejection
  • Overreact to insignificant occurrences
  • See themselves as the focal point of everyone’s behavior
  • Believe that everything that happens has special meaning to them; reads hidden or threatening meanings into benign remarks or events
  • Are overly concerned with fairness and with being treated equally
  • Feel that others are trying to harm, exploit or deceive them
  • Are reluctant to confide because of unwarranted fears that the information will be used maliciously against them


  • Express compassion without being overly friendly.  Remember that suspicious students have trouble with trust, closeness and warmth.
  • Agree with student that you are a stranger and that even strangers can be concerned.
  • Be consistent, punctual and firm.
  • Be specific and clear regarding the standards of behavior and academic performance you expect.
  • Suggest to the student that personal counseling is available and potentially helpful.


  • Assure the student that you are her/his friend.
  • Be overly warm and nurturing.
  • Flatter or participate in their games. 
  • Be cute or humorous.
  • Challenge or agree with any mistaken or illogical beliefs.
  • Be ambiguous.

The Sexually Harassed Student

Sexual harassment involves unwelcome and unwanted sexual attention and/or advances, requests for sexual favors, and other inappropriate verbal comments or physical contact.  It usually occurs within the context of a relationship of unequal power, rank or status.  It does not matter whether or not the offending person’s intention was to harass.  It is the effect that harassment has that counts.  As long as the conduct interferes with a student’s academic performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning environment, it is considered sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment usually is not an isolated, one-time-only incident, but rather, a repeated pattern of behavior that may include:

  • Comments about one’s body or clothing
  • Questions about one’s sexual behavior
  • Demeaning references to one’s gender
  • Sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, looks or gestures
  • Conversations filled with innuendoes and double meanings
  • Letters, phone calls, material or objects of a sexual nature
  • Repeated non-reciprocated demands for dates or sex
  • Deliberately touching, brushing up against, leaning over, cornering, or pinching another; being forced to kiss someone
  • Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault
  • Mooning or flashing
  • Being the victim of sexual rumors
  • Having one’s clothes pulled off or down

Students who have been sexually harassed often display these characteristics:

  • Signs of stress and anxiety
  • Feeling powerless and helpless
  • Doubting their own perceptions of what happened
  • Wondering if the incident was a joke
  • Questioning if they have brought the incident upon themselves
  • Decreased participation in the classroom; dropping or avoiding classes, or even changing majors
  • Believing that their complaint will not be taken seriously;  mistrusting the system; doubting that their school will support them; believing that reporting will make no difference; thinking that their friends will not support them
  • Feeling embarrassed
  • Reluctance to “rock the boat”; not wanting to get the harasser in trouble
  • Fear of the harasser or others


  • Listen carefully to the student and assure her/him that you understand.
  • Help the student seek advice and guidance through a counselor, the campus police, a department chair or other trusted person.
  • Inform the student that formal and informal complaints can begin with the Vice President of Student Services and/or the Campus Police.  Familiarize yourself with Administrative Regulation 5401.
  • Advise the Dean of your division.
  • File an Incident Report with the Vice President of Student Services.
  • Refer to Victims of Sexual Assault webpage:


  • Ignore the situation. 
  • Don’t try to deal with the situation alone. 
  • Don’t confront or accuse the suspected perpetrator.