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Working with Students in Distress

Tips for recognizing distressed students

The following signs, when present for more than a few days, may indicate a need for action:

The best indicator of distress:
A marked change in functioning for an extended period (e.g. two weeks)

Your observations:

  • Social isolation/withdrawal
  • Difficulty focusing on conversations or activities
  • Disorganized thinking/speech
  • Inappropriate affect
  • Indications student is out of touch with reality
  • Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
  • Extreme suspiciousness or mistrust of others
  • Violent outbursts
  • Signs of alcohol or drug use
  • Expression of sadness or unhappiness over several weeks
  • Frequent class absence or disappearance for extended periods
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Abrupt change in manner or appearance
  • Increasing dependence on others
  • Swollen or red eyes
  • Ritualistic or repetitive behavior

Student’s complaints:

  • Current suicidal or homicidal thoughts, plans, threats REQUIRES IMMEDIATE ACTION
  • Feelings of hopelessness/helplessness
  • Marked anxiety
  • Marked decrease or increase in appetite
  • Marked increase or decrease in sleep
  • Loss of interest in usual activities, relationships, classes
  • Irrational fears
  • Marked increase in physical complaints
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Overwhelming stress

Student’s history:

  • History of significant emotional disturbance, including hospitalization
  • Traumatic life events
  • Recent loss of an important person (death or separation)
  • Recent loss of self-esteem
  • Previous period of poor functioning

What should I do for a troubled student?

  • Talk
  • Listen
  • Normalize
  • Give hope
  • Avoid judging or criticizing
  • Maintain clear boundaries
  • Consult with colleagues (including the Student Life Counselor)
  • Refer
  • Provide information
  • Follow up
  • Accept - that except for emergencies the student must be given the option of accepting or rejecting recommendations such as counseling.


A mental health emergency is a situation in which a person’s life is in immediate danger (e.g. suicidal or homicidal threat).

Emergency resources include:

  • Campus Security and Public Safety:  620.441.5599

  • 911

Other mental health crises:

  • Student Life Counselor:  620-441-5228

  • Vice President of Student Affairs:  620-441-5274

  • Director of Student Life:  620-441-5206

  • Director of Housing:  620-441-5289

  • Health Services:  620-441-5236

  • Local hospital emergency room

  • Community Mental Health Center

  • Cowley County Mental Health 24 hour crisis line:
    620-442-4554 or 620-221-9686


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