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Recognizing and Assisting Student in Distress

A few general tips:

Trust your instincts.

If you experience unease about a student, it is important to pay attention to those inner signals. If a student talks about painful feelings or suicide, it is important to take that student at his or her word. If a student talks about feeling afraid of or controlled by a partner, that could be a sign that he or she may be in an abusive relationship. Changes in mood or social behavior are also frequent signs of an abusive relationship or significant emotional difficulty.

Listen carefully.

Many students will have trouble articulating their real difficulties. Be available. Show interest and offer support. Try not to get upset or communicate your own personal judgments. Be calm, receptive and serious, conveying that you can tolerate hearing about their painful feelings. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said.

Help them get help.

The most effective means of suicide and violence prevention is a referral for professional help. Call the Office of the Dean of Students or Counseling & Psychological Services. If appropriate, offer to walk them there right away.

Important Phone Numbers & Websites:


Office of the Dean of Students

Main number

Counseling and Psychological Services

Main number
434-924-5556 or 434-243-5150

For more detailed information and additional indicators of distress, please download the Recognizing and Assisting Students in Distress brochure (PDF).

What to look for:

Academic indicators may include:

  • Deterioration in quality of work or a drop in grades
  • A negative change in classroom performance
  • Repeated requests for extensions or missed assignments
  • Repeated absences
  • Disorganized or erratic performance
  • Writings that indicate extremes of hopelessness, social isolation, rage, fear or despair

Communication indicators may include:

  • Direct statements indicating distress, abuse or coercion, family problems, or other difficulties
  • Disproportionate anger or hostility
  • Becoming more withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Excessive dependency
  • Tearfulness
  • Expressions of hopelessness, helplessness, fear, or worthlessness
  • Expressions of concern about a student in the class by his/her peers
  • Marked changes in eye contact

Physical indicators may include:

  • Deterioration in physical appearance or worsening personal hygiene
  • Visible physical marks (although the lack of such marks does not mean the absence of relationship violence)
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Visible changes in weight

Safety risk indicators may include:

  • Written or verbal statements showing a sense of finality or a suicidal tone
  • Written or verbal communications that indicate fear of or coercion by another person
  • Essays or papers which focus on despair, violence or abuse, suicide, or death
  • Statements to the effect that the student is "going away for a long time," or giving away possessions
  • Self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors