Observe: How to Observe and Recognize that a Student is in Distress

Changes in mental well-being may be reflected in the way a student thinks, feels and acts. A student’s academic performance may also be affected. The following are some changes you might notice. You may notice one or several indicators that could suggest that a student is experiencing difficulty. Or you may have a gut-level feeling that something is amiss.


  • Fearful, not understanding what they’re experiencing, worried that others will notice something is wrong, worried about what others will think
  • Obvious confusion
  • Statements of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Overt references to suicide or threats of harm to others
  • Extreme and repeated suspiciousness, paranoia


  • High levels of nervousness and worry
  • Decreased motivation, lethargic
  • Lonely, alone or isolated, misunderstood, worthlessness
  • Extreme mood swings or persistent low mood
  • Agitation, restlessness or hyperactivity
  • Unusual emotional reactions (i.e., inappropriate anger, crying, giggling) or inexpressive, devoid of emotion


  • Behaviour that is a significant and persistent change from usual behaviour
  • Isolating self from others. little or no participation in activities they once enjoyed
  • Significant problems with roommates, friends or family
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene, sudden, unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Frequent requests to talk/meet with you or other support persons in private
  • Repeated hostile, sarcastic or inappropriate remarks
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not there


  • Frequent missed classes, not handing in academic work
  • Increased difficulty or inability to concentrate
  • Written work that includes emotional outbursts, self-­‐loathing, hopelessness, disorganized thinking
  • Avoiding classes when presentations or participation is expected
  • Aggressive or disruptive behaviour in class

It is possible that a student exhibiting just one of the signs of distress is only having an off day. However, any single safety risk indicator (e.g., a student writes a paper expressing hopelessness and thoughts of suicide) or a cluster of lesser signs (e.g., emotional outbursts, repeated absences, and noticeable cuts on the arm) indicates a need to take action to support the student. Rather than noticing certain indicators, you may have a hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong.

Emergency Indicators

Students who are verbally aggressive and potentially violent

What you can do in an escalating situation


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