Become familiar with signs that may indicate a student needs support

Students experience a wide variety of challenges that produce stress. In more severe instances, stress may lead to distress or crisis when it begins to impact, impair, or disrupt daily functioning. Become familiar with signs that may indicate a student needs support.

Students in distress: A student in distress may present changes in their behavior, mood, cognition, physical appearance, or verbally indicate issues. Some examples of signs of distress can include:

  • Marked changes in class attendance/performance
  • Significant changes in personal hygiene
  • Unusual patterns of interacting
  • New or repeated behavior that pushes decorum, social norms
  • Isolation
  • Expressions of guilt/worthlessness
  • Irritable, short-fused
  • Diminished communication/responsiveness
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses
  • Appearing depressed or lethargic
  • Frequent, lingering illness or injuries
  • New or increased substance use

Students in crisis: A student in crisis may exhibit similar behaviors as a student in distress as well as other behaviors that may indicate concern for well-being and safety. A student in crisis warrants more immediate follow-up. Some examples of signs of crisis can include:

  • Unusual patterns of interacting
  • Disclose feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of hurting themselves, or references to suicide. These may also be veiled as jokes.
  • Writing or speaking in odd, disorganized, tangential manner
  • Undue aggressive or abrasive behavior
  • Impaired speech or distorted thoughts
  • Threats regarding self or others
  • Expresses safety concerns which causes change to usual behaviors. This could include receiving repetitive unwanted contacts, having communication and interactions monitored, or unsafe living environments.
  • Fixation on a grievance and inability to let it go

Responding to Students:

  • Acknowledge the parallel stressors facing students and faculty, especially during times of trauma and uncertainty.
    • Example statements/questions: “When I face deadlines I have to work at balancing my stress level.”
    • Express empathy and offer “care for the student’s wellbeing” as your reason for asking about distress.
  • Emphasize the importance of well-being and self-care, and acknowledge it may be hard to attend to wellbeing in environments that emphasize competition and achievement.
    • Provide examples of how you manage self-care
    • “Taking care of yourself should be a priority, and not just when you can fit it into your schedule.”
  • Be accessible to students and let them know they can share challenges with you.
    • Share your office hours and email regularly with students reminding them you are available to talk about concerns regarding your class
    • If teaching virtually, keep your camera on and create opportunities for students to connect with you.
    • Ask open ended questions gently and slowly as a way to simply assist the student in “telling their story” to you.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask students if they feel their functioning is impaired, or have thoughts of harming themselves or others.
  • Promote the use of university support resources on your syllabus and share the resources verbally as reminders.
    • Share the variety of resources available or refer to Student Care and Assistance in the Office of the Dean of Students to ensure they are connected to the most appropriate resource.
  • Become familiar with how and when to refer students to university resources.
    • Trust your instincts and do not hesitate to seek consultation from your department chair, supervisor, Office of the Dean of Students, Threat Assessment Team, or University Counseling Service.
    • Explore resources on for additional supports and referrals.
    • The welfare of the student and the campus community is our top priority when a student displays threatening or potentially violent behavior.
  • Follow-up with students after first contact to check in on them and offer further support for any concern that may arise.

Conversation Starters for Students and Employees

Students in your courses or working in your office may also approach you for help. This is a good sign that they trust you. As faculty and staff, sometimes we are so worried about saying the wrong thing that we don’t say anything. Simply showing that you care and that you can connect them to the appropriate resources goes a long way.

  • “How are you? Are you ok?”
  • “Tell me more about that.”
  • “I’ve recently noticed…”
  • “That sounds difficult. How can I support you?”
  • “I remember dealing with that when I was a student. What would be helpful?”
  • “I may not know the answer, but I want to support you and connect you with the right resources on campus.”

There are many resources on campus – if you don’t know the right one, please connect them with Student Care and Assistance.

Addressing Concerns

When to consult with another resource:

  • Anytime you’re not sure how to handle or approach the concern(s)
  • Student keeps coming back and is not following through on referrals
  • Increasing complexity in concerns

When to refer student to another resource:

  • You’re providing more “counseling” than “advising”
  • Problems or requests are outside of your scope
  • Issue would benefit from additional support and staff members
  • Behavior shows no improvement or worsening

When to report concerns:

  • You’re concerned about welfare of the individual, yourself, or others
  • Always report serious or persistent inappropriate behavior to the Office of the Dean of Students.
  • Keep the Office of the Dean of Students and the Threat Assessment Team informed of new concerns.


Kognito is an online, interactive training that builds awareness, knowledge, and skills about mental health and suicide prevention. It prepares users to lead real-life conversations with fellow students and colleagues who are in distress and how to connect them with the support they need.

More information and how to access the training can be found at