Worried About Someone?
How to Recognize Students Who May be Distressed
As a member of the faculty or staff, or as a fellow student you may be in a position to observe and recognize changes which signal psychological distress in students. At other times you may become concerned with the behavior you have observed in one of your students or friends. Being able to identify people who are distressed and having some guidelines for how to handle them will allow you to be more in control of situations which may present themselves.
Listed below are some common signs of psychological distress in college students.
• Emotional Problems. Just about everyone gets depressed from time to time, but persons suffering from significant levels of depression may exhibit an array of symptoms such as insomnia or change in sleep patterns, inability to concentrate, change in appetite, loss of ability to experience happiness or pleasure, apathy, crying, poor personal hygiene, anti-social behavior, and loss of self esteem. Having only one symptom is usually not enough to describe someone as depressed. However, when several of these symptoms occur for an extended period of time, a person may be experiencing a depressive episode.
Although many students experience high stress at college, some develop emotional problems related to anxiety. Students suffering from anxiety problems can experience panic attacks or extreme fearfulness of specific situations. Exposure to a traumatic experience can also cause a student to develop anxiety problems, symptoms of which include flashbacks, avoiding things associated with the traumatic event, and being easily startled. When symptoms such as these interfere with a student’s life, they may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.
• Unusual acting out. This would represent a change in behavior from normal socially appropriate behavior. It would include being repeatedly and excessively disruptive, overly antagonistic, or acting in a bizarre or peculiar manner. In some cases, alcohol or drug abuse may be involved.
• Suicidal ideation. A student in serious distress may consider doing harm to him/herself. Many suicide attempts are preceded by messages that the person is considering suicide. Verbal messages can range from “I wish I weren’t here” to a very direct “I’m going to kill myself." Some non-verbal signs include giving away valued possessions, and putting legal, financial, and university affairs in order, a preoccupation with death, withdrawal or boredom, a history of depression, and poor grooming habits. Each type of message about suicide should be taken seriously and may require immediate faculty or staff intervention.
• Other signs of distress. The more symptoms observed, the more likely the individual is to be truly distressed. It is important to observe changes from a student’s previous behavior. These signs may include a drop in class attendance, or a drop in quality of class work, a more generally tense or sad appearance, and the development of inappropriate or bizarre responses such as talking off-the-subject and rambling or laughing inappropriately.