Any member of the University of Alabama community may come into contact with a distressed student. Being aware of distress signals, methods of intervention, and sources of help for the student can help you feel more in control of situations that may arise. The mental health professionals at the Counseling Center are available to faculty and staff for consultation regarding these issues. Feel free to call us at 348-3863 if you would like to discuss these matters further. Call us at 205-348-3863 (M-F, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.) if you would like to discuss these matters further. For emergencies after hours, a 24-hour on call counselor is available. To reach the on call counselor, call UAPD at 205-348-5454 and ask the dispatcher to speak with the counselor on call.

Distress Signals: What to Look For

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

Depression or Moodiness

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. Typical symptoms of depression include:

  • sleep disturbances
  • poor concentration
  • change in appetite
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • withdrawal
  • feelings of helplessness
  • poor hygiene
  • loss of self-esteem
  • social isolation
  • preoccupation with death.

Agitation or Acting Out

This would represent a departure from normal or socially appropriate behavior. It might include being disruptive, restlessness, hyperactivity, intense emotion, being antagonistic, or physically harming oneself.  This may also increased alcohol and/or drug abuse.


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 are indicative of a problem that requires attention.

Suicidal Thoughts

Suicidal thoughts may be indicated by a range of statements 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. 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 e-mails, texts, or social media content
  • harassing or stalking behavior
  • papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material

Other Distress Signals

Distress may also be manifested through changes in academic or interpersonal functioning.

Academic Problems:

  • Excessive procrastination
  • Uncharacteristically poor preparation or performance
  • Repeated requests for extensions or special considerations
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Career or course indecision
  • Excessive absence or tardiness
  • Avoiding or dominating discussions
  • References to suicide or homicide in verbal statements or writing

Interpersonal Problems:

  • Asking instructor for help with personal problems
  • Dependency on advisor
  • Hanging around office
  • Avoidance of advisor
  • Disruptive Behavior
  • Inability to get along with others
  • Complaints from other students

Intervention Guidelines: How to Help

You are not expected to constantly monitor or provide thorough assessments of distressed students, but you may be the first contact for such a student and thus in a position to ask a few questions. Following the guidelines below 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 911 or the UA Police Department at 348-5454.

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.

Use Good Listening and Communication Skills

Show the student you are engaged by using good non-verbal communication skills like maintaining eye contact or providing an affirmative head nod. Be supportive and empathetic in your verbal responses. Tell the student directly why you think counseling or other forms of intervention would be helpful. Make it clear that your recommendation represents your best judgment based on the student’s behavior or concerns. Discuss your observations and perceptions directly and honestly with the student.

Honor the Truth of the Student’s Experience

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. People who may be seeking attention for alternative gain 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

Suicide Prevention

Resources are available for further training in suicide prevention for faculty and staff. Please visit our suicide prevention page for further information. We offer online self-guided training as well as in-person training.