Resources for Faculty

How to Recognize Signs of Distress, Interact with Students, and Make Effective Referrals

The college experience is a time of self-discovery and transitions. Even changes that are exciting, that students have been looking forward to, can be a source of stress as they demand that they adapt to new situations and face new challenges. Often, along with exciting opportunities are significant losses (e.g., familiar places, friends, family, mentors, pets, religious community). Also, family life goes on and when there is stress at home, students often find themselves divided; a part of their heart at home and another at school.
Frequently, the supportive structures available at the university and the students’ own resources are enough to facilitate a successful adaptation. Sometimes, these stressors become increasingly burdensome and begin to interfere with the students’ sense of wellbeing and their ability to interact with their environment. In addition, some students arrive with a history of psychosocial challenges that further tax their resources and their ability to cope successfully. When this happens, students may become more withdrawn, their academic work suffers, their relationships deteriorate their spiritual lives faint, and their health declines.
Faculty members are in a unique position to intervene when they identify these failures to adapt and thrive. They interact with their students often, observe how they relate to others, and through their academic work, they can identify changes in their state of mind (e.g., confused thought processes, melancholic themes, aggression, changes in quality of work). In order to accomplish this, it is important to understand the signs of distress for students and know how to interact and make effective referrals.
  • Repeated absences from class, lab, or section
  • Missed assignments, exams, or appointments
  • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work
  • 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, 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
  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or loss
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling, or aggressive comments
  • More withdrawn or animated than usual
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; crying or tearfulness
  • Expressions of sever anxiety or irritability
  • Excessively demanding or dependent behavior
  • Lack of response or outreach from course staff
  • Shaking, tremors, fidgeting, or pacing
  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion; falling asleep in class repeatedly
  • Visible changes in weight; statements about change in appetites 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 beady‐eyed or smelling of alcohol
  • Concern about a student by his/her peers or another faculty member
  • A hunch or gut‐level reaction that something is wrong
  • 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 long time”
If a student is exhibiting any of these sings, s/he may pose an immediate danger to her/himself. In these cases, you should stay with the student and contact the Counseling Center at 891-4089 (after hours call 301-728-2255 and speak with an on‐call crisis counselor).


  • Physical or verbal aggression is directed at self, others, animals, or property.
  • The student is unresponsive to the external environment; he or she is:
    • incoherent or passed out
    • disconnected from reality/exhibiting psychosis
    • displaying unmitigated disruptive behavior

The situation feels threatening or dangerous to you

If you are concerned about immediate threats to safety, call Campus Safety: from a campus phone 4019, from your cell phone 270-1618.

How Do You Know When to Act?

You may notice one indicator and decide that something is clearly wrong. Or you may have a “gut –level feeling” that something is amiss. A simple check‐in with the student may help you get a better sense of his or her situation. It’s possible that any one indicator, by itself, may simply mean that a student is having an “off” day. However, any one serious sign (e.g., a student writes a paper expressing hopelessness and thoughts of suicide) or a cluster of smaller signs (e.g., emotional outbursts, repeated absences, and noticeable cuts on the arm)

Consult with a Counselor

If you are unsure about how to respond to a specific student, consult with the professional staff at the Counseling Center. A counselor can help you explore how to approach the interaction with the student, assist you in identifying campus and community resources that might fit his/her needs, and provide coaching on how to make a referral. Counselors are available during business hours for phone or in person consultations at the counseling center. You can call (301-891-4089) to schedule a phone consult or to arrange a meeting at the counselor’s office.

Make a Referral

If you feel the student would benefit from professional counseling, make a referral. Let the student know that you believe a counselor would be of help in this situation. Inform the student that counseling is both confidential and free of charge. Share the counseling center website (, so the student can learn more about the services available for him/her.
A mutual decision is best. Don’t force the issue if the student takes a defensive posture; simply restate your concerns and recommendations. If the student is receptive, you can suggest that he/she call for an appointment at 301-891-4089. You may even offer to contact a counselor and provide background information. You can also offer to walk with the student to the counseling center. Some students may find this comforting. After this, you can follow-up with the student by inquiring how he/she felt about the session.
If you consider the situation to be an emergency, dial 911 before contacting the counseling center. Do not delay getting help for the student and making sure that you are both safe.