Students in Distress

As the semester ends and finals approach, student stress levels can rise. Often there are indicators that a student is experiencing distress long before a situation escalates to a crisis. As instructors within the UC Berkeley Extension community, you may be the first to notice a student who is experiencing difficulty. In these situations, you do not have to take on the role of a counselor or attempt to diagnose a student. You need only to notice the signs of distress and communicate these signs to the appropriate resource.

The Many Signs of Distress

To assist our students in maintaining their mental health and maximizing their intellectual growth, it is important to identify difficulties as early as possible. The presence of one of the following indicators alone does not necessarily mean that the student is experiencing severe distress. However, the more indicators you notice, the more likely it is that the student needs help. For the purposes of this article, the indicators have been grouped into the following categories:

Safety Risk Indicators

  • Written or verbal statements that mention despair, suicide or death
  • Severe hopelessness, depression, isolation and withdrawal
  • Statements to the effect that the student is “going away for a long time”
  • Physical or verbal aggression that is directed at self, others, animals or property
  • The student is unresponsive to the external environment; he or she is incoherent or passed out
  • The student is disconnected from reality/exhibiting psychosis
  • The student is displaying unmitigated disruptive behavior
  • The situation feels threatening or dangerous to you

Behavioral and Emotional Indicators

  • Direct statements indicating general distress, family conflict, grief and loss, or economic hardships
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling or aggressive comments
  • Unusual withdrawal or animated behavior
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; crying or tearfulness
  • Expressions of severe anxiety or irritability
  • Excessively demanding or dependent behavior
  • Lack of response to outreach from staff
  • Shakiness, tremors, fidgeting or pacing

Physical Indicators

  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion; falling asleep in class repeatedly
  • Visible changes in weight; statements about change in appetite or sleep
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises or burns
  • Frequent or chronic illness
  • Disorganized speech, rapid or slurred speech, confusion
  • Unusual inability to make eye contact
  • Coming to class bleary-eyed or smelling of alcohol or other substances

Academic Indicators

  • Extreme disorganization or erratic performance
  • Written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair or confusion; essays or papers that focus on suicide or death
  • Continual seeking of special provisions (extensions on papers or deadlines, make-up exams)
  • Patterns of perfectionism: e.g., can’t accept themselves if they don’t get an A+
  • Overblown or disproportionate response to grades or other evaluations
  • Repeated absences from class, section or lab
  • Missed assignments, exams or appointments
  • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work

Other Factors

  • Concern about a student by his/her peers, roommates or teaching assistant
  • A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong

Knowing When and How to Take Action

In a circumstance where a student is in imminent danger or if you feel unsafe (see Safety Risk Indicators above):

When there is no immediate risk of harm:

  • Consult with Student Services as soon as possible by emailing or calling (510) 664-4539.
  • Student Services will reach out to the student. Depending upon the type of student (e.g., international, online, etc.), the department will refer him/her to the appropriate resources.

The information above was adapted from “Promoting Student Mental Health: A Guide for UC Faculty and Staff” from the University of California.