Recognizing Distressed Students

At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. But we can identify at least three general levels of distress which, when present over a period of time, suggest that the problems the person is dealing with are more than "normal" ones.

Mild Distress

These behaviors, although not disruptive to others, may indicate that something is wrong and that help may be needed: 

  • Serious grade problems, or a change from consistently good grades/work performance to inexplicably poor performance
  • Excessive absences, especially if the person has previously demonstrated good, consistent attendance
  • Unusual or markedly changed patterns of interaction, including: social isolation, avoidance of class participation, excessive anxiety when called upon, dominating discussions, excessive agitation or hyper-activity, speaking extremely rapidly, falling asleep in class or on the job
  • Significant difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or answering simple questions
  • Depressed, lethargic mood
  • Disruption in regular habits, such as sleeping too much or too little; substantial increases or decreases in food intake; physical complaints such as severe headaches, stomach trouble, or chronic fatigue
  • Unusual physical appearance including: swollen, red eyes; a marked change in personal dress or hygiene; sweating (when the room is not hot); a significant increase or decrease in weight

Moderate Distress

These behaviors may indicate significant emotional distress, and perhaps also a reluctance or inability to acknowledge a need for more personal help:

  • Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions, especially if the student appears highly uncomfortable or emotional about disclosing the circumstances prompting the request
  • New or regularly occurring behavior that pushes the limits of decorum, and which interferes with the effective management of your class, residence hall, or work area
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses to situations
  • Expressed hostility toward you, friends, parents, classmates, or others

Severe Distress

These behaviors are obviously inappropriate and/or indicate a crisis which needs immediate attention:

  • Highly disruptive behavior that is hostile, aggressive, or violent
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech; unconnected or disjointed thoughts
  • Loss of contact with reality (auditory or visual hallucinations, beliefs or actions that are greatly at odds with reality or probability)
  • Disorientation to time, place, or people
  • Overtly suicidal or homicidal thoughts

What You Can Do to Help

Responses to Mild/Moderate Distress

If you choose to approach a student you are concerned about, or if a student seeks you out for help, here are some suggestions that might make the opportunity more comfortable for you and more helpful to the student:

  • Talk to the student in private when neither of you will be rushed or preoccupied. Give the student your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel comfortable about what to do next
  • If you initiated the contact, express your concern in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, you might say, "I've noticed you've been missing a lot of class lately, and I'm concerned"
  • Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Let the student talk, and communicate that you understand
  • Avoid judging, evaluating, or criticizing unless the student specifically asks for your opinion. Such behavior is apt to close the student off from you and from getting the help needed. It is important to respect the student's value system, which may be undergoing challenges or change, even if you do not agree with it
  • Explore what the student has done previously to resolve the problem. Encourage implementation of strategies that have been helpful before, or help them think of new ways of handling the problem. If necessary, work with the student to clarify what she or he perceives to be the costs and benefits of their options for handling the problem

Responses to Severe Distress

Try to make every effort to stay calm and know who to call for help. Find someone to stay with the student while calls to the appropriate agency are made. For students expressing a direct threat to themselves or others, or who act in a disruptive, bizarre, or highly irrational way, call:

  • For Transportation and/or Protection (24 hours): MSSU University Police (417-626-2222); Joplin Police (911)
  • For Emergency Consultation & Evaluation (8am-5:00pm): Counseling Service-ACTS Deptment (417-625-9324); Student Health Center(417-625-9323)
  • For Emergency Consultation (8am-5:00pm): Dean of Students (417-625-3192)

For students who exhibit severe anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, or any other intense emotional disturbance, and for whom no immediate risk of harm seems likely, consider calling the ACTS Department for consultation, or consult the Emergency/After Hours Assistance for a list of other appropriate contacts. As you interact with the student, consider the following list of Do's and Don'ts:

  • DO take the student's feelings seriously and let him/her know you want to help.
  • DO listen attentively, empathize, and reassure the person that there are resources available to address her/his concerns.
  • DO stay close until help is arranged or risk has passed.
  • DON'T minimize the student's distress or react with shock or disdain at the student's thoughts or feelings .
  • DON'T try to challenge or argue with the student.
  • DON'T analyze the student's motives.

When to Make a Referral

Even though a student asks for help with a problem and you are willing to help, there are circumstances that may indicate that you should refer a student to another resource. Some of these situations include:

  • The problem or request is beyond your expertise
  • Personality differences will interfere with your ability to help
  • You know the student personally, and do not believe you could be objective enough to help
  • The student acknowledges the problem, but is reluctant to talk to you about it
  • After working with the student for some time, little progress has been made and you do not know how to proceed
  • You are feeling overwhelmed, pressed for time, or otherwise are at a high level of stress yourself
  • There is immediate danger to the student or someone else (i.e. suicide, homicide, abuse, assault, harassment, etc.)

How To Make A Referral

Some people accept a referral for professional help more easily than others. When proposing a referral, it is best to do so in a direct and positive manner.

  • It is usually best to be frank with students about the limits of your availability to assist them - limits of time, energy, training, and objectivity. It is often reassuring to students to hear that you respect their willingness to talk to you, and that you want to support them in getting the assistance they need.
  • Depending on the situation, have the student consider friends, clergy, family members, community agencies, and campus offices. Tell the student what you know about the person or referral service, being as specific as possible about the kind of help the student can expect.
  • Assure students that seeking help does not necessarily mean they have serious problems. It is possible that their concern is one of the common reasons that college students seek help from another person. These include feeling down or low on energy and motivation; experiencing difficulties in relationships with their family, friends, or romantic partner; feeling anxious or depressed; and having concerns about future goals or plans. Confused students may be comforted to know that they do not necessarily have to know what is wrong before they ask for help.
  • If the student agrees to be referred, suggest that she or he call to make an appointment while in your office/room. The student should make the appointment if possible. You can increase the chances that she or he will attend the appointment if you tell the student that you would like to hear how the meeting went and request that the student let you know about it. If the student is reluctant to talk to anyone, you can call the Counseling Service in the ACTS Department to consult about the situation.


Professional counseling staff are available for consultation with faculty, staff, and students regarding behavioral and mental health issues. This is especially encouraged for individuals concerned about unusual, problematic or potentially harmful behavior of others. If necessary, we can facilitate a connection for services or make a referral to other mental health professionals and agencies in the area.