Student Life Office

Recognizing and Helping a Student in Distress

If you are concerned about a student, don’t let uncertainty stop you from taking action. The Student Life Office in partnership with Health and Counseling Services created this guide to help you recognize, respond to, refer, and report troubling student behavior.

Reed faculty and staff are in a unique position to demonstrate compassion for students in distress. Sometimes students cannot or will not turn to family or friends in times of distress. Your expression of concern may be a critical factor in supporting a student’s academic career and their emotional well-being.

Indicators of Distress

Be aware of the following indicators of distress. Look for grouping, frequency, duration, and severity of these behaviors, not just isolated symptoms.

Academic Indicators

  • Sudden decline in quality of work
  • Repeated absences
  • Multiple requests for extensions
  • Disorganized performance
  • Overly demanding of faculty or staff attention

Safety Risk Indicators

  • Unprovoked anger or hostility
  • Implying or making a direct threat to harm self or others
  • Academic assignments dominated by themes of extreme hopelessness, suicidal ideations, or violent behaviors
  • Physical aggression or violence
  • Harassing, intimidating, or stalking behaviors
  • Threatening speech or other communications
  • Damage to property or other disruptive acts
  • Verbal confrontations

Psychological Indicators

  • Self disclosure of personal distress
  • Bizarre content in writings or in class
  • Excessive tearfulness, panic reactions, irritability, or unusual apathy
  • Verbal abuse
  • Unusual/disproportionate emotional response to events
  • Expressions of concern about the student by their peers
  • Grandiosity or euphoria
  • Rapid mood changes or emotional instability
  • Obvious signs of recent and significant self-injury
  • Delusions

Physical Indicators

  • Marked changes in physical appearance, including deterioration in grooming, hygiene, or significant weight loss/gain
  • Agitated behavior, such as restlessness or pacing
  • Rapid, loud, or pressured speech
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Intoxication, hangover, or smelling of alcohol/marijuana
  • Disoriented, bizarre, or out-of-context behavior

How to Help

Use these tips to help you refer a student to support resources or services. If you are unsure how to advise or refer a student in need of support or services, please contact the Student Life Office for assistance.

If you are a faculty or staff member and you think the student may disclose to you a sexual assault, state up front that you are obligated to report any information to the college and offer to refer them to a confidential resource if the student would prefer.

If a student expresses a direct threat to self or others, or acts in a bizarre, highly irrational and disruptive way, contact Community Safety or 911 for immediate assistance.


  • Seek suggestions from experienced colleagues, department chair, or supervisor.
  • Allow sufficient time to thoroughly address the issues of concern.
  • Review your physical environment. Make provisions for your safety and that of others. If necessary, notify colleagues in close proximity of your intended intervention.
  • If you decide not to have direct contact with the student, inform the proper individuals or departments of your concerns.

Listen and Connect

  • Respect the student’s privacy without making false promises about confidentiality.
  • Listen supportively. Repeat the student’s concerns back to them to clarify and to demonstrate an understanding of the student’s perspective.
  • Do not challenge or become argumentative with the student.
  • Do not try to minimize the student’s distress.
  • If safe, meet and talk in private to minimize embarrassment and defensiveness.
  • Clearly express your concerns in non-disparaging terms.
  • Ask if the student wants to hurt anyone—self or others. Asking does not plant ideas in the student’s mind.
  • Offer supportive alternatives, resources, and referrals.
  • Emphasize the option and importance of professional help for the student.
  • Document all incidents and attempts to resolve the situation.
  • Be factual and objective.

Refer to Resources and Follow Up

  • Recommend resources. Provide the student with realistic expectations. Note that some campus resources can offer confidential support while others are required to respond or report. See Confidentiality & Obligatory Reporting for more information.
  • Be honest with the student about your limits. This includes time limits and limits in counseling expertise.
  • Frame any decision to seek and accept help as a good choice.
  • Make sure the student understands next steps. Encourage them to make and keep appointments with the referral resource(s).
  • If necessary, find someone to stay with the student.
  • Make sure they are accompanied while you make calls to the appropriate resources, and offer to escort the student to those resources.
  • Set a follow-up appointment with the student.

If a student disclosed a sexual assault or other violation of Reed’s Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct policy (DHSM), you may be obligated to report the information to the college within 24 hours. Please visit Title IX for more information on who must report and how to make a report to the Title IX Coordinator.

If you would like to debrief your conversation with the student, you are welcome to contact the Student Life Office or Health and Counseling Center staff.