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Recognizing Students in Distress

As members of the campus community, faculty and staff are likely to encounter distressed students in the course of their daily work and can play a crucial role in identifying and responding to these students. Tragic events in recent years on school campuses have heightened our awareness that we need to recognize warning signs of students in distress.

Marked Changes in Academic Performance or Behavior

Be alert to a student’s poor performance and preparation when it is markedly inconsistent with previous work, repeated requests for special consideration (e.g., incompletes, late papers), or infrequent class attendance with little or no work completed. A student who engages in disruptive behavior consistently derailing classroom activities or lectures is of great concern. A student’s aggressive and angry domination of classroom discussions should be similarly concerning.

Physical Signs

Students in crisis frequently experience a marked decline in personal hygiene. Notice students with a consistent disheveled or fatigued appearance, consistent lethargy, listlessness and lack of energy, or swollen or red eyes. Students in crisis frequently experience dramatic weight loss or gain.

Social Withdrawal

Because of the powerful protective effect of a strong social support network, a student’s withdrawal from peers, friends and family is often a red flag signaling a decline in overall functioning. A student’s avoidance of social interaction in general or a sudden marked reduction in class participation are often a sign of distress as well.

Strange Behaviors and Impaired Thinking

Students in serious crisis may engage in bizarre or strange behaviors that are obviously inappropriate to the situation. Incoherent or confused speech or delusional thinking suggesting a loss of contact with reality, and paranoia or suspiciousness are symptoms deserving immediate attention and referral for a diagnostic assessment. Agitation, noticeable restlessness, hyperactivity, or unusually rapid speech are distinct behavioral signs of anxiety potentially requiring intervention. A marked impairment of attention and memory is a common sign of distress as well.

Exaggerated Emotional Responses

Intense anxiety, extreme irritability and anger, prolonged depressed mood, and/or frequent tearfulness and crying spells are all clear signs of emotional distress. The 
excessive use of alcohol, the frequent use of illicit drugs and/or the abuse or misuse of prescription medications are typically signs deserving a prompt referral for assessment and intervention.

Threatening Statements and Behaviors

Students in crisis frequently express helplessness or hopelessness, including references to suicide, giving away prized possessions, and “settling accounts” with finality. Disturbing or morbid themes consistently present in verbal or written work are frequently a sign of underlying emotional distress. Less frequent, but equally alarming, are students’ references to homicide, death, or threats to harm others. Students in crisis may engage in violence committed against objects, animals or people. Stalking behaviors and threatening or accusatory statements embedded in e-mails, text messages, letters or phone calls signal an acute crisis and require an immediate response.

Referring a Student in Crisis to Counseling and Psychological Services

UC Merced’s Counseling and Psychological Services are available for immediate referrals, in-person appointments and phone consultations weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. When a student is in crisis, faculty and staff often accompany that student to Counseling and Psychological Services located in the H. Rajender Reddy Health Center on the first floor of the Joseph Edward Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center to be certain that the student receives the needed services. Under these circumstances, when possible, it is helpful to call ahead to let us know that you are bringing a student to Counseling and Psychological Services for immediate walk-in services.

We encourage members of our campus community to contact Counseling and Psychological Services at 209-228-4266 to consult with a staff clinician regarding the referral process for the array of services we offer. You can utilize our website for help in describing concerning symptoms and for tips on how to identify and refer a distressed student. Counseling and Psychological Services staff emphasize the value of early intervention and prevention. We look forward to working with you in promoting a safe learning environment supporting students’ intellectual, social, physical and emotional development.