Training and Education

How to Support Students In Distress

Recognizing Students in distress

Faculty, Family, Friends, or Staff members you are in an excellent position to recognize behavioral changes in your student.  These behaviors are the action driven indirect way a student is asking for help. Your ability to notice a student in distress is a crucial skill necessary to ensuring all Bulls have access to success. It is the equivalent to noticing the clouds before the approaching storm. Here are a few indicators to watch out for. 

Physical Indicators

Noticeable changes in personal hygiene, grooming, or attire

Changes in speech (slurred, rapid, or pressured)

Smelling of alcohol or other drugs Unusual decreased eye contact or avoiding eye contact (not consistent for student) Frequent reports of illness or feeling sick

Emotional Indicators

Difficulty regulating emotions (rapid changes in mood)

Tearful, shakiness/tremors, panicked, pacing, fidgetiness, or agitation

Expressions of hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness More withdrawn or more animated that usual Statements of relationship issues, or loss of a loved one Mentions of mental health concerns (feelings depressed, haven't be able to see my counselor)

Academic Indicators

Repeatedly demanding assistance or accommodations from faculty or staff

Multiple request for extensions

Disorganized content inconsistent with previous performance Expressions of perfectionism (i.e. "I am a failure if I do not get an A") Incongruent response to a graded assignment

Safety Indicators

Acute intoxication or mentions of chronic ongoing substance abuse

Violence or aggression resulting in harm to property destruction or harm to self or other

Talking, harassing, bullying, or intimidating behaviors Direct/indirect threats of harm to self or others Identifying being victimized by person or university

The pandemic has altered the way many of us engage with students. Some of these indicators mentioned above might be challenging to notice virtually. Here are some distance learning indicators to look out for.

Distance Learning Indicators.

Suddenly submitting late assignments.

Stops responding to your communication. Increased absence from learning platform. Decrease or stopped logging into learning platform. Content or theme of work incongruent with assignment or tone is negative, dark, or odd for the student. Communication from students seems accusatory, manipulative, sexually inappropriate, or threatening


Responding to students in distress

The initial step in connecting with a student in distress can be difficult depending on your relationship with the student.  Offering the student a private space to connect will allow the student to share more about what is going on. This small gesture could be as simple as;

"I notice [insert observation]. I care and want to ensure you have access to success here at USF"

 Use your O.A.R.S. to paddle through the difficult waters of the students distress.

Open-ended Questions

Share what is stress for you now?

How long have you been dealing with this?

Tell me more... Who have your reached out to for support?


You've done your best with what you knew.

You're handling a lot, thank you for coming yo me. I think I might know who can be of support.

It must be really [feeling] that you [content].

Reflective Listening

It sounds like [content] has been [feeling] for you.

I can see how feeling [feeling] because [content]...

What you are dealing with must be very [feeling] and [content] must make other life demands difficulty to manage.


What I hear you saying is ....

What I understand you saying is .....

Correct me if I am wrong. You are [feeling] because [content].... right?

Offer to make a referral to SOS. If the student declines validate their wishes, but fall back on caring for their wellbeing and wanting to see them succeed. Reaffirm they belong here at USF. If you are a professor or staff member fall back on being a responsible employee. Let them know you have to report distressed students. Refer to USF Policy USF6.0163 "SOCAT Health and Wellness Interventions"

All reports made to SOS remain anonymous. While the student has to right to request their student record referral parties names and contact information will be redacted. 

Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress Handout.