Distress Signals

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


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 people 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.


Some distressed people 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

Frequent signs of intoxication and other self-abuse 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 other personal affairs in order. All of the above messages should be taken seriously.

Violence and Aggression

You may become aware of people who may be dangerous to others. This may be manifested by physically violent behavior, verbal threats, threatening e-mail or letters, harassing or stalking behavior, and papers or exams that contain violent or threatening material.

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 someone 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 person. Maintain a safe distance and a route of escape should you need it. If danger to you or others seems imminent, call 911 or your local police.

Avoid Escalation

Distressed people 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 person’s mental health status. Distressed people 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 people 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 people 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 people 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 people on your own by simply listening and referring them for further help. Some people 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 person
  • Feeling afraid
  • Having thoughts of “adopting” or otherwise rescuing the person
  • “Reliving” similar experiences of your own