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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.