Recognizing Signs of Distress
More than faculty and staff, students are often best placed to notice behavioral changes in peers that may be a sign of personal or psychological distress. These changes can often be subtle in nature. The key is to help the person who is at risk connect with the right support resources.
Support is available through the Office of the Dean of Students and the Counseling and Psychological Services unit of Student Health, each of which has on-call personnel available after hours. University Police are also trained to assist if a person is in an emotional or psychological state requiring immediate intervention for their safety.
There is no single sign or collection of signs that indicates when someone is in need of help, but the following observations are often useful:
- Deterioration in physical appearance or hygiene
- Unprovoked anger or hostility, or behaving in a manner more withdrawn or animated than usual
- Self-injurious or self-destructive behavior
- Communications that focus on despair, acting out violent behaviors, rage or death
- Erratic behavior or performance
When a student's behavior becomes strange, paranoid, atypical or in some other way concerning to you it may be that a student is experiencing a serious mental disorder.
In cases involving an emergency safety situation or one involving clear threats to safety, dial 911 immediately.
Indicators of Serious Depression
Indications of serious depression (usually multiple symptoms) may include:
- Low physical energy, low motivation, apathy
- Feelings of helplessness/hopelessness
- Low self-esteem - feelings of inadequacy
- Interpersonal withdrawal (remaining alone, no longer going to class or work, etc.)
- Decline in self-care
- Decreased interest in pleasurable activity
- Noticeable changes in appetite - weight gain/weight loss
- Excessive sleep or inadequate sleep
- Difficulties with attention and concentration
- Suicidal thinking
Indicators of High Risk of Suicide
Someone's suicide potential is high when the following three factors are present:
- Presence of the plan to kill oneself
- A realistic method or means of carrying through with the plan
- Intent to act upon the plan
Additional indicators of suicide risk:
- History of previous attempts or family history of suicide
- Tendencies towards poor impulse control, especially when combined with alcohol use
- A recent situation involving intense embarrassment, guilt or shame (e.g. - being charged with an honor offense, poor or failing academic grades, academic suspension, the charge of the crime, etc.)
- A sense of there being "no way out"
- Strong feelings of being a burden on others
- Other behaviors reflecting efforts to tie up loose ends or resolve one's affairs (e.g. - giving things away, writing a will, organizing one's belongings, etc.)
Self-harm (i.e. - cutting, burning, etc.) is not typically reflective of suicidal intent but it does often occur in someone who is having difficulty coping with their thoughts and feelings. Self-harming incidents should raise concern and motivate efforts to get help for the individual who is self-harming.
Your best strategy is to speak to the individual, share your observations, express your concern and recommend that they get help. If your concerns about a friend or acquaintance are strong and he or she is not interested in getting help, you should contact the Office of the Dean of Students or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for further consultation. If you live in a University housing facility consider reaching out to your R.A.
If at any point you believe that a person's injury is serious and his or her life may be at risk (i.e. - bleeding is excessive), call 911 immediately.
Potential Indicators for Risk of Violent Behavior
Life-threatening violence on university campuses is extremely rare. Based on violent crime rates across the country, one is far safer on university campuses than elsewhere. However, consistent with our commitment to maintain a safe community, it is important to be aware of certain behaviors that may indicate a risk of violent actions.
- Dramatic changes in personal appearance, typical behaviors or work habits
- Argumentative and/or overly suspicious attitudes, including expressions of desiring vengeance or revenge
- Deterioration in social relationships - an extreme sense of alienation, isolation and disconnection from friends and family
- Excessive emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the circumstances
- A recurrent sense of victimization by others - frequently being the subject of ridicule or humiliation
All students should take personal ownership of safety at the University and report troubling behavior to the appropriate University office, providing all available information concerning the nature of the behavior and the individual(s) involved. Suspicious behavior, threats or acts of violence should be reported immediately to University police by calling 911. If you are unsure of whether to call 911, err on the side of caution and do so. Non-emergency situations involving students may be reported to the Dean of Students (434-924-7133) or by using the "Just Report It" on-line notification system.
Reports and referrals will be handled as discreetly as possible under the circumstances to protect all parties involved and in accordance with applicable law and other relevant University policies.