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Recognizing Students in Distress

Referral Guide Description of Counseling Services | Role of Faculty & Staff Recognizing Students in Distress | Guidelines for Dealing with Distressed Students | Making a Referral for Counseling | Helping the Reluctant | Scheduling an Appointment | Confidentiality | Resources

People dealing with personal concerns or problems tend to show signs that they are struggling in some way. The following indicators may be useful in assessing whether or not a referral should be made:

1. Changes in mood, appearance or behavior

Some students do not directly tell you that there is a problem, but their appearance and behavior can be telling indicators. Deterioration of hygiene or appearance and dress may be visible cues of a problem. A distinct decline in academic performance, poor attendance, an uncharacteristic need for additional attention and repeated requests for extensions are examples of behavioral changes you might observe. Outbursts of anger, crying, extreme levels of activity or conversations that do not make sense could indicate psychological difficulties. Threats to classmates and angry, harassing behaviors may require intervention on several levels. These behaviors should not be tolerated and action needs to be taken to stop them. In addition, underlying psychological problems may need to be addressed as well. 

2. Traumatic changes in personal relationships

Students are often stressed when they experience a traumatic change in their personal lives. The death of a family member or close friend, difficulties in important relationships, a divorce or break-up or changes in family responsibilities might increase stress and overwhelm the individual's usual capacity to cope. If you are aware of such a problem, you might wish to initiate a conversation.

3. Drug and alcohol abuse

Coming to class or a meeting while intoxicated or high is a sign of serious abuse of drugs or alcohol. Individuals often use drugs and alcohol to cope with life stresses and psychological difficulties. Unfortunately, the substance abuse itself frequently causes a further decline in social, academic, and work functioning. If you see signs of intoxication, do not underestimate their significance.

4. Academic difficulties

Students whose academic performance declines to a noticeable degree may be feeling overwhelmed in other areas of their lives. Some students might exhibit difficulties with concentration in class or lower performance on exams.

5. Learning problems

Some students find the demands of college-level academic work to be greater than they anticipated. While it is expected that students will go through an adjustment period, those who demonstrate a consistent discrepancy between their ability and performance may need further assistance, and Counseling Services can help with these issues. Poor study habits, test anxiety, or an undiagnosed learning disability may be affecting their performance. Students may also be referred to Disability Services for accommodations pertaining to a learning or physical disability (615-460-6407). Concern about a student may also be communicated to the STudent At Risk (STAR) program (615-460-6407).

6. References to suicide

If a student talks or writes about suicide, this should be taken seriously. Thoughts of suicide are not necessarily dangerous, but they may indicate that the student is feeling overwhelmed or depressed. To assume that talk of suicide is intended solely to get attention is risky and can be a regrettable mistake. If you become aware of a student who is thinking about suicide, please refer them to Counseling Services immediately and notify the Counseling Office of your referral and concern.

7. Leaving school

When a student indicates that he or she is considering leaving school or transferring, a referral to Counseling Services may be appropriate. Often a complex number of issues are at play when a student decides to leave an institution. A change of place may not be all that is at issue.