Dealing with Distressed Students

Distress Signals  

Listed below are some of the more prevalent signs of someone in distress. This list is intended to provide basic information only.

  • Depression. While we all may feel depressed from time to time, "normal" depressions may consist of only one or two symptoms and usually pass within days.  Clinically depressed students will exhibit multiple symptoms for a longer period of time. Some of these symptoms are sleep disturbances, poor concentration, change in appetite, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, withdrawal, poor hygiene, loss of self-esteem, and preoccupation with death.
  • Agitation or Acting Out. This would represent a departure from normal or socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, restlessness or hyperactivity, being antagonistic, and increased alcohol and/or drug abuse. It is possible that the person may be extremely upset but not suicidal. However, if a person has been depressed and then becomes agitated and moves about restlessly, there is more cause for concern.
  • Disorientation. Some distressed students may seem "out of it." You may witness a diminishment in awareness of what is going on around them, forgetting or losing things, misperception of facts or reality, rambling or disconnected speech, and behavior that seems out of context or bizarre.
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse. Signs of intoxication during class or interaction with University officials as a result of drug or alcohol related behaviors are indicative of a problem that requires attention.
  • Suicidal Thoughts. Most people who attempt suicide communicate early messages about their distress. These messages can range from "I don't want to be here", to a series of vague "good-byes", to "I'm going to kill myself." Non-verbal messages could include giving away valued items, and putting legal, financial, and University affairs in order. If the person has made clear self-destructive plans, the problem is apt to be more acute than when the plan is less definite. All of the above messages should be taken seriously.
  • Violence and Aggression. You may become aware of students who may be dangerous to others. This may be manifested by physically violent behavior, verbal threats, threatening email or letters, harassing or stalking behavior, and papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material. While consulting with others about the seriousness of the threat may be appropriate, contacting the Department of Public Safety at 940-898-2911 may also be necessary.  

Intervention Guidelines 

While it is not expected that you be a "watchdog" or that you provide a thorough assessment, you may be the first contact for a student in distress and in a position to ask a few questions. Following these guidelines can lead to a positive outcome for all parties.

  • Safety First! Always keep safety in mind as you interact with a distressed student. Maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. If danger to you or the student seems imminent, call the Department of Public Safety at (940) 898-2911.
  • Avoid Escalation. Distressed students can sometimes be easily provoked. Avoid threatening, humiliating, and intimidating responses. It is usually not a good idea to "pull rank" and assert authority unless you are certain of the student's mental health status. Distressed students are in need of listening and support. One can always remind them of rules at a later time.
  • Ask Direct Questions. Take a calm and matter-of-fact approach. Ask students directly if they are drunk, confused or if they have thoughts of harming themselves. You need not be afraid to ask these questions. You will not be "putting ideas in their heads" by doing so. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and is paying attention.
  • Do Not Assume You Are Being Manipulated. While it is true that some students appear distressed in order to get attention or relief from responsibility, only a thorough assessment can determine this. Attention-seekers can have serious problems and be in danger, too.
  • Know Your Limits. You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and referring them for further help. Some students will, however, need much more than you can provide. Respect any feelings of discomfort you may have and focus on getting them the assistance they require. You can do this by reinforcing them for confiding in you, being accepting and nonjudgmental, trying to identify the problem area, and indicating that seeking professional help is a positive and responsible thing to do.

Some signs that you may have over-extended yourself include:

  • Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
  • Feeling angry at the student
  • Feeling afraid
  • Having thoughts of "adopting" or otherwise rescuing the student
  • "Reliving" similar experiences of your own

Referral Sources

Texas Woman’s University takes seriously all threats that are made by members of our community. The entire community of faculty, staff, and administrators are all part of a team that ensures, to the best of the university’s ability, that everyone will be safe from harm. 

When you feel that a student, or anyone else in the university community, is talking about the possibility of harming themselves or others, you have a responsibility to act:

  • Regardless of whom the person is, if you perceive an imminent danger to self or to others, call the Department of Public Safety on your campus immediately. The State of Texas defines that one person believes that another person is in imminent danger when that first person:

“…has reason to believe and does believe that the person evidences a substantial risk of serious harm to himself or others; (and) has reason to believe and does believe that the risk of harm is imminent unless the person is immediately restrained…” (§ 573.011)

  • In cases where imminent danger is not clearly present and the person making the threat is a student, you may call either the Office of the Vice President for Student Life (8-1-3615), CAPS (Denton, 8-1-3801; Dallas, 8-2-6655 or 8-3-2416; Houston, 8-4-2059) or Student Health Service (Denton, 8-1-3826) to consult about your concerns. Identifying yourself to the receptionist and sharing your need to consult about a student concern will allow you to be connected to a staff member of these offices. You may, during your consultation with any of these offices, be prompted to call another of these offices to facilitate an appropriate response to the situation. In no case should you consider that leaving a simple voice mail or email message with no follow-up is sufficient. 
  • Non-student situations that are not imminently dangerous but of concern because they may escalate should be discussed with the Office of Human Resources (8-1-3555).

Please understand that, by law, only certain licensed professionals (psychologists, physicians, etc.) acting in their official capacities have the burden or right of confidentiality with students. Federal laws regarding the confidentiality of academic records and judicial proceedings restrict the need for confidentiality to exactly and only those areas. Students who are reporting to you significant personal or emotional concerns have no right to expect you to maintain their confidentiality, nor are you under any burden to keep this information confidential. Failing to report concerns, especially imminent danger situations, creates extremely stressful situations for the entire community and increases your own liability for any negative outcomes for which you had prior knowledge. Please allow the university system to work by sharing your concerns with appropriate university officials, as noted above. 

Resource Denton Dallas Houston
CAPS 940-898-3801 214-689-6655 713-794-2059
Student Life 940-898-3615 214-689-6697 713-794-2157
TWU DPS 940-898-2911 214-689-6666 713-794-2222
County Mental Health Center 940-381-5000 214-330-7722 713-970-7070

Page last updated 3:48 PM, June 19, 2018