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How to Recognize Students Who May be Distressed

As a member of the faculty or staff, or as a fellow student you may be in a position to observe and recognize changes which signal psychological distress in students. At other times you may become concerned with the behavior you have observed in one of your students or friends. Being able to identify people who are distressed and having some guidelines for how to handle them will allow you to be more in control of situations which may present themselves.

Listed below are some common signs of psychological distress in college students.

* Emotional Problems. Just about everyone gets depressed from time to time, but persons suffering from significant levels of depression may exhibit an array of symptoms such as insomnia or change in sleep patterns, inability to concentrate, change in appetite, loss of ability to experience happiness or pleasure, apathy, crying, poor personal hygiene, anti-social behavior, and loss of self esteem. Having only one symptom is usually not enough to describe someone as depressed. However, when several of these symptoms occur for an extended period of time, a person may be experiencing a depressive episode.

Although many students experience high stress at college, some develop emotional problems related to anxiety. Students suffering from anxiety problems can experience panic attacks or extreme fearfulness of specific situations. Exposure to a traumatic experience can also cause a student to develop anxiety problems, symptoms of which include flashbacks, avoiding things associated with the traumatic event, and being easily startled. When symptoms such as these interfere with a student’s life, they may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.

* Unusual acting out. This would represent a change in behavior from normal socially appropriate behavior. It would include being repeatedly and excessively disruptive, overly antagonistic, or acting in a bizarre or peculiar manner. In some cases, alcohol or drug abuse may be involved.

Suicidal ideation. A student in serious distress may consider doing harm to him/herself. Many suicide attempts are preceded by messages that the person is considering suicide. Verbal messages can range from “I wish I weren’t here” to a very direct “I’m going to kill myself.” Some non-verbal signs include giving away valued possessions, and putting legal, financial, and university affairs in order, a preoccupation with death, withdrawal or boredom, a history of depression, and poor grooming habits. Each type of message about suicide should be taken seriously and may require immediate faculty or staff intervention.

Other signs of distress. The more symptoms observed, the more likely the individual is to be truly distressed. It is important to observe changes from a student’s previous behavior. These signs may include a drop in class attendance, or a drop in quality of class work, a more generally tense or sad appearance, and the development of inappropriate or bizarre responses such as talking off-the-subject and rambling or laughing inappropriately.

*** If you are not sure whether a referral is necessary, please call a counselor at 202 884-9615 for a consultation.

How to Refer a Student to the Counselor

  • Suggest to students that they make an appointment by calling (202) 884-9615
  • Call the Health & Wellness Center with the student (202) 884-9612
  • Walk the student to the Health & Wellness Center

How to Recognize Students Who are Potentially Dangerous

Campus violence is a serious concern and needs to be taken seriously by anyone aware of a potentially violent situation. Some signals that a student is potentially dangerous include:

  • Physically violent behavior.
  • Verbally threatening or overly aggressive behavior.
  • Threatening e-mails, letters, phone calls or threats made on social media sites
  • Threatening or violent material in academic work or on exams.
  • Harassment, including sexual harassment and stalking.
  • Possession of a weapon, particularly a firearm.

Sometimes these behaviors are the result of or are exacerbated by mental illness. You need to take appropriate action to protect the potential victim and the student who is potentially dangerous. If the danger appears imminent you should contact campus safety at 202-884-9111 or 911 immediately for assistance. If you are uncertain about the course of action to take, it is recommended you contact any or all of the following for consultation and or assistance.

  1. Vice President for Student Affairs at 202-884-9203
  2. The Dean of Students at 202-884-9611
  3. The Health & Wellness Center at 202-884-9615
  4. Campus Safety at 202-884-9111