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Dealing with Distressed Individuals

Dealing with Distressed Individuals

What is my role? How can I help?


You may be one of the first individuals to notice that something is wrong or that a person is distressed. Although emotional distress may be expected, especially during times of high stress, you may notice that a person is acting out of character or in ways that are inconsistent with his/her previous behavior. Often, the person’s behavior may cause you to feel upset or worried. You may be a resource in times of trouble, and your expression of interest and concern may be critical in helping the individual regain emotional stability. You may also be in a good position to utilize campus and community resources so that appropriate interventions can occur.

Signs of Possible Distress

  • Marked change in performance or behavior
  • Excessive absence or tardiness
  • Trouble eating and/or sleeping
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Undue aggressiveness
  • Exaggerated emotional response that is disproportionate to the situation
  • Depressed or lethargic mood
  • Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
  • Marked change in personal hygiene
  • Excessive confusion
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Dependency (e.g., individual spends an inordinate amount of time around you or makes excessive appointments to see you)
  • Behavior indicating loss of contact with reality
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • References to suicide
  • References to homicide or assault
  • Isolation from friends, family, or classmates
  • Giving away personal or prized possessions
  • Preparing for death by making a will and final arrangements

The DOs

  • DO trust your intuition.
  • DO speak with the individual privately and express your willingness to help directly and non-judgmentally.
  • DO let him/her know you are concerned about his/her welfare.
  • DO listen carefully to what the individual is upset about; actively listen.
  • DO acknowledge the feelings of the individual; help explore options.
  • DO point out that help is available and that seeking help is a sign of strength and courage, rather than weakness or failure.
  • DO suggest resources ; make personal referrals when possible, and call ahead to brief the person.
  • DO maintain clear and consistent boundaries and expectations; recognize your own limits.
  • DO call 911 if you are concerned for your immediate safety or that of others, or if the individual needs immediate attention.
  • DO consult with an appropriate mental health resource if you are concerned for the individual but they are not a danger to themselves (e.g., sexual assault, recent loss).
  • DO refer an individual to an appropriate campus or community resource for support related to personal or academic issues. When in doubt, call the Dean of Students.

The DON’Ts

  • DON’T ignore the unusual behavior.
  • DON’T minimize the situation.
  • DON’T ignore warning signs about the individual’s safety or the safety of others.
  • DON’T promise confidentiality.
  • DON’T judge or criticize.
  • DON’T make the problem your own.
  • DON’T involve yourself beyond the limits of your time, skill, or emotional well-being.


General Considerations


If you need immediate assistance in responding to a threat to your safety or the safety of others, call 911.

If you need to consult with someone about someone who seems to be showing signs of emotional distress, mental illness, or difficulty in adjusting to college life, contact a mental health resource. You may also consider contacting the Dean of Students to discuss a possible referral to The Care Team.

If you have questions about whether a student’s disruptive behavior can be addressed through the university student conduct system, contact the Office of Student Conduct.

If you don’t know whether to be concerned about a behavior, contact the Dean of Students at 330.672.4050 for guidance.