Students in Distress: A Guide for Vanderbilt Faculty & Staff
Warning Signals of Distress
Students may demonstrate behavior that indicates distress and a need for assistance. A combination of several factors more than a single circumstance is most likely to indicate a problem:
- Academic performance concerns, uncharacteristic changes
- Declining grades or reduced class participation
- Incomplete or missing assignments
- Repeated requests for extensions, incompletes, or withdrawals
- Increased absenteeism or tardiness
- Disruptive classroom behavior
- Apparent memory loss or difficulty concentrating
- Cheating, rule breaking, or defiance
- Poor organization skills or trouble with note taking
- Bizarre, aggressive or morbid comments or written content
- Expressions of feeling hopeless, helpless, guilty and/or worthless
- Self injury or other self-destructive behavior
Physical and Emotional Signals
- Chronic fatigue, falling asleep in class
- Symptoms of being easily distracted, “spacey,” or a tendency to daydream
- Nervousness or tearfulness
- Marked changes in regular habits or activities
- Significant weight gain or loss
- Signs of intoxication, dilated or constricted pupils, or apparent hangovers
- Poor or declining physical appearance, hygiene, and grooming
- Hyperactivity or rapid, pressured speech
- Extreme boredom, negativism, defensiveness, and secretiveness
- Comments by others about alcohol or drug use
- Erratic behavior, sudden mood swings, inappropriate anger, hostility, and irritability
- Hyper-expansiveness or grandiosity
- Withdrawal from others or loss of pleasure in everyday activities
- Talk of suicide or harm to self or others
If you decide to express your concern to the student:
- Choose a place where you may talk quietly without interruption, at a time convenient for both of you.
- Be honest and focus on the specific signs that alerted you to a possible problem.
- Remain calm, compassionate, and willing to listen.
- Convey your willingness to help.
- Be aware that the student could respond in a variety of ways. Don’t interpret negative, indifferent, or hostile responses as a wasted effort. A decision to seek help often takes time.
- Sometimes fear gets in the way of the student’s willingness to accept assistance. Acknowledging possible reservations may help overcome this barrier.
- Provide the student with the phone number of the University Counseling Center, Student Health, Religious Life, or the Dean of Students.
- If appropriate, ask for an agreement to make an appointment by a certain date. It may be helpful to ask the student later if he or she has followed through on a referral you made.
- Keep communication open by telling the student you are always willing to listen.
- Occasionally, it may be helpful to assist a student with making a contact.
- Be mindful that students may view referral as rejection.