Shared Responsibility: Recognizing and Helping Students in Distress
A Guide for Faculty, Staff and Students

Prepared by the Counseling Center
Fort Lewis College

The College Student Profile

  • With one foot firmly planted in adolescence and the other in adulthood, the college student faces a variety of issues including identity, priorities and lifestyle.
  • It’s a time for much growth, an opportunity for learning ways to cope.
  • It’s also a time of stress as students face day-to-day challenges away from family and other longstanding supports.
  • For some, it is also a time when serious mental health issues, such as a first serious depression, may occur.
  • National studies show increasing rates of emotional disturbance, anxiety, depression, suicide and other significant mental health issues among college students.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.

Faculty/Staff as Mentors

  • During their college years, students often distance themselves from their parents because of their need to form their own identity and be more independent.
  • It is natural for them to seek connections with other adults or peers for advice, support or mentoring.
  • Students may initially seek you out to engage you in conversation within your area of expertise. As a result, you may find that conversations with students sometimes include topics more personal than academic. As you listen, the student may share more sensitive concerns such as substance use, personal relationship problems, moral dilemmas or mood disorders. You need to know where to refer students if these issues appear serious.

Recognizing Warning Signs of Psychological Distress

Recognizing warning signs does not require expertise! It does, however, require an awareness of what to look for.


  • A dramatic drop in academic performance and/or GPA
  • Papers or journal entries that have recurring themes of hopelessness, despair, rage, violence or death
  • Inappropriate disruption of the classroom
  • Persistent absence from class; missed appointments
  • Indications of disorientation or confused thinking


  • Sudden increase or decrease in weight
  • Changes in personal appearance, such as a decrease in personal hygiene
  • Obvious substance abuse, such as smell of alcohol or slurred speech
  • Noticeable changes in concentration, motivation or energy level
  • Sudden withdrawal from interactions with faculty, staff or peers
  • Inappropriate or exaggerated behavior, aggressiveness, emotional outbursts, crying
  • Comments about excessive fear, anxiety or panicky feelings


  • Written or verbal statements that indicate hopelessness
  • Direct statements indicating family problems or personal losses such as the death of a family member or a relationship break-up
  • References to harming oneself or others
  • Expressions of concern about a student by peers
  • Your own sense, that something is seriously amiss with the student

The greater the number of warning signs present, the greater the likelihood that the student needs assistance.

Depression is common. Suicide is lethal.

Clinical depression is a serious and common disorder of the mood that is pervasive, impacting the mind and the body. It often begins in young adulthood, making college students particularly at risk. Depression raises the risk of suicide dramatically.

Key symptoms to watch for are:

  • Extreme sadness, despair, helplessness, hopelessness
  • Loss of enjoyment when engaging in usually pleasurable activities
  • Increased social isolation and withdrawal
  • Inability to concentrate; not able to read or focus on lectures
  • Sleeplessness, fatigue, weight and appetite changes
  • Excessive irritability

Steps in Making a Referral for a Distressed (Non-Suicidal Student)

Step 1 - Listening

  • As students share concerns, listen carefully and show interest.
  • Try to speak to the student in person if you receive an e-mail or voicemail that suggests the student is in need of further assistance.
  • Limit criticism even if you think it is constructive.
  • Respect the student's values and beliefs.
  • Avoid offering advice; listening provides the student with a feeling that his or her concerns have been understood.

Step 2 - Expressing Concern

  • Explain your concerns and your observations of specific behaviors.
  • Acknowledge that you understand the student might be going through a hard time and that you would like to help.
  • Assure the student that seeking counseling is an indication of strength and maturity.

Step 3 - Making a Referral

  • Share your knowledge of the Counseling Center. Cite personal experience or cases of other students who have benefited from counseling.
  • In cases that do not involve concerns of suicide, provide the student with the name, location and phone number of the Counseling Center.
  • Explain that counseling is confidential and that there is no charge for the first four sessions.
  • If a student would like a referral for a counselor in town, they can contact the Counseling Center for names.
  • Offer to call and make the appointment for the student. If the student wants your assistance, call the Counseling Center Office Manager and convey to her whether you consider this a crisis situation.
  • It is appropriate to follow-up with a student you have referred for counseling to ask how they are doing and if they have set up an appointment in the Counseling Center, and if so how it went. Respect the student's rights to reject the referral suggestion or to think about it first - UNLESS there has been talk of suicide.
  • Whether or not the student goes to the Counseling Center, feel free to consult with the "on-call" counselor about your referral or any questions you have. Because of confidentiality counselors will not be able to tell you if a student did come for counseling unless the student gives permission to do so.