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Common Signs & Causes of Student Distress

  • Changes in personality (e.g., more noticeably sad, irritable, anxious, indecisive, apathetic, etc.), especially when these changes persist for more than a few days.
  • Changes in academic performance (e.g., skipping classes, failing grades, falling behind in assignments, etc.). Academic problems may indicate a personal problem that is making it difficult for the student to concentrate or be motivated.
  • Recent significant losses (e.g., ending of a relationship, death of an important person, experiencing a traumatic event, etc.). While students have probably dated in high school, college is often the first time that students involve themselves in long-term, serious, intimate relationships and commitments. When these relationships are threatened or break up, it often takes a heavy toll on students.
  • Withdrawal from others (including friends and family) and previously enjoyed activities.
  • Helplessness/hopelessness (e.g., person may be unable to see a better future; feels nothing will ever change) is a particularly ominous sign. Most of us are willing to press on in life and work on our problems if we can see a light at the end of the tunnel, a day when things will be better. When students don't have that hope, they are much less motivated to put forth an effort to change their lives, and they may even have thoughts about taking their lives through suicide.
  • Changes in eating patterns (e.g., loss of or increased appetite) and/or sleeping habits (e.g., insomnia or oversleeping). Sustained periods of significant changes in eating habits or insomnia can have serious consequences on both a student's academic and psychological functioning. On the other end of the spectrum, sleeping all the time may indicate that a student is trying to escape from problems by retreating to dreamland.
  • Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs, especially when substance use leads to antagonistic, impulsive, reckless and/or violent behavior.
  • Financial difficulties.
  • Appearing disoriented or "out of it" (e.g., less aware of what is going on around them, more forgetful, rambling or disconnected speech, and/or behavior that seems out of context or bizarre). These may indicate either a drug-induced altered state or a serious mental health issue such as psychosis.
  • Talking about harming themself (ranging from vague statements like "Everyone would be better off without me" and "It won't matter soon" to direct and clear statements like "I'm going to kill myself"). Most people who contemplate suicide give some warning of their intentions to someone close to them.
  • Talking about harming others (e.g., verbal threats, threatening emails, harassing or stalking behaviors, papers/exams that contain violent material). All such statements and actions must be taken seriously.