Recognizing and Responding to Signs of Distress in Students

Listening, supporting, and encouraging your friends can really make a difference in their life. Sometimes you might hesitate to bring up a concern because you are afraid you will upset your friend, hurt your friendship, or prompt him/her to do something harmful to themselves, but most of the time your friend will be grateful to know that someone cared enough to reach out and take a risk.

If you see these signs you should be thinking about reaching out or letting someone know

  • Not going to class
  • Listlessness, lack of energy, complaints about fatigue
  • Not showering, looking disheveled
  • Impaired speech or disjointed, confused thoughts
  • Aggressive or threatening behavior
  • Extreme mood changes or inappropriate display of emotions
  • Frequent crying
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain and/or preoccupation with food, weight, or body shape
  • Losing touch with reality such as hearing or seeing things that are not there, beliefs they have extraordinary powers; concerns they are being watched
  • Alcohol-related consequences such as blacking out, vomiting
  • Cuts or burns on their body

Responding to Students in Distress

  • Reach out to a friend about whom you are concerned; PLEASE do not ignore strange, disturbing or inappropriate behavior. If you feel like you cannot have the conversation, notify your RA or the Counseling Center and/or complete the Student of Concern Reporting Form.
  • It will be easier to have a positive impact if you address your concerns as soon as you notice them rather than waiting until the behavior becomes more serious.
  • Be discrete; choose a private space to talk.
  • Be specific about your concerns.  [I noticed that you’ve been in your room a lot lately and you haven’t been going to our class; or I noticed that you look like you’ve been crying a lot lately, and you don’t seem like yourself.]
  • Be clear about what you can and cannot keep private. You can’t promise confidentiality if someone has told you that they are going to hurt themselves or someone else.
  • Be optimistic about the potential for them to make positive changes while encouraging them to think about the obstacles they will likely face. Being realistic about the challenges of making a change makes it much more likely they will happen.

Making a Referral to the Counseling Center: Some Suggestions for What You Can Say

  • “Have you ever thought about talking to a counselor about this issue? It’s free, and they have to keep things confidential; they meet with hundreds of students every year. About 40% of student in each graduating class have gone to the counseling center.”
  • “Maybe you could go just once to check it out and see if it’s for you before deciding it’s not going to be helpful?”
  • “Can you think of any benefits to talking to someone who can help you come up with some solutions vs. sticking with the same strategies you’ve been using?”
  • “I’d be willing to call the Counseling Center for you or even walk you over. If you are ready to go today I know they have walk-in times at 10am and 3pm.”

Suicide
Asking a friend whether they are thinking about suicide can feel uncomfortable and even frightening. You cannot increase someone’s risk of hurting themselves just by bringing up the topic. Many students feel very relieved when someone realizes they are hurting so much that they are having thoughts about not wanting to be alive. Even though someone might be thinking about suicide, it doesn’t mean they have a clear plan. The opportunity to have a conversation with a caring person can significantly reduce the risk that a student will actually harm themselves.

Signs a student might be considering suicide include:

  • Expressions of hopelessness about the future, or being able to change or improve
  • Expressions of being a burden to friends, family, the college
  • Difficulty connecting with others
  • Physical signs that they have cut or injured themselves
  • Giving away possessions
  • Talking about “if/when I’m gone….”
  • Detaching from responsibilities and routine

Events associated with increased risk include:

  • Death of a family member or close friend
  • Sudden breakup in a relationship
  • Problems with family members, friends, or roommates
  • Experiencing or causing an accident
  • Getting arrested or doing something about which one is deeply ashamed
  • Diagnosis of a serious illness
  • Academic setbacks

Responding to Suicide
If you have ANY concern that a student might be considering suicide, you should ask him/her directly about your concerns. Here are some ways you can ask:

–Have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself or taking your life?

–Are you thinking about harming yourself?

–Do things ever get so bad that you have thoughts about hurting or killing yourself?

  • Express your concern and let them know that their safety is your priority.
  • If they indicate they are currently thinking seriously about hurting themselves, do not let them leave your room.
  • During regular business hours, call the Counseling Center and inform the secretary a student needs to be seen immediately. Walk the student to the Center if possible or call Public Safety for a transport to the Counseling Center.
  • Call Public Safety (x4444) for assistance if a student is threatening to harm themselves immediately or if they are communicating to you via email.
  • For less urgent concerns, please complete the Student of Concern Reporting Form on the Dean of Students’ website.