Responding to Students with Emotional Distress

Responding to a Student who is Distressed, Depressed, or Suicidal/Threatening


Psychological issues can often go untreated and seriously impact a student’s personal and academic life. Helping a student can be very challenging, and your concerns may be dismissed. Simply expressing encouragement in seeking help can be an incredibly valuable first step towards healing for the student. What is most important is to approach the student in a calm, gentle manner that conveys genuine concern and a sincere desire to understand and assist. Keep in mind that active listening and showing support for the student is most effective in assisting them.


Depression is a common mental health problem that varies in severity and duration. As a basic emotion, depression is a temporary reaction to loss, stress, or life challenges. It can be alleviated through the passage of time and/or the natural healing effects of social support, daily routines, and simple coping strategies. Severe or chronic depression usually requires professional help.

Symptoms of depression can look like:

  • feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness
  • a deep sense of sadness
  • an inability to experience pleasure
  • irregular eating and sleeping
  • difficulties with concentration, memory, and decision-making
  • self-destructive thoughts


Immediate and decisive intervention is needed when student behavior poses a threat to self or others, including:

  • Suicidal gestures, intentions, or attempts
  • Other behavior posing a threat to the student (e.g., hallucinations, drug abuse)
  • Threats or aggression directed toward others
  • Demonstrated inability to function

Some factors associated with suicide risk are:

  • suicidal thoughts
  • pessimistic view of the future
  • intense feelings of hopelessness, especially when combined with anxiety
  • feelings of alienation and isolation
  • viewing death as a means of escape from 
  • personal or family history of depression or psychosis
  • personal or family history of suicide attempts
  • substance abuse
  • history of self-mutilation

What you can do:

If you are concerned that a student may be experiencing a life-threatening emergency, please:

  • call 911,
  • call ECU Police at 252-328-6787
  • or have the student go to the local emergency department (Vidant Medical Center – 2100 Stantonsburg Rd. Greenville, NC or call 252-847-4100)

If the student is not facing a life-threatening emergency:

  • Know your resources prior to going into the conversation
  • Follow the SEEN (PDF) strategy
  • Document your interactions and attempts to reach out

Responding to a Student with Anxiety

Anxiety can be generalized across a range of situations, or it may be situation-specific (e.g., test-taking, social situations, public speaking).

Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • agitation
  • panic
  • avoidance
  • irrational fears
  • fear of losing control
  • ruminations
  • excessive worry
  • sleep, or
  • eating problems

What you can do:

  • Talk to the student in private
  • Focus on relevant information and speak calmly, concretely, and concisely
  • If student is visibly anxious, engage them in taking several deep breaths with you
  • Help the student develop an action plan that addresses the main concern
  • Offer for the student to download the MindShift phone app for managing anxiety
  • If needed, remind the student that they have access to counseling


  • Overwhelming the student with information or complicated solutions
  • Arguing with irrational thoughts
  • Assuming the student can just “get over” the anxiety

Responding to a Student who is Demanding

Students who are demanding can be intrusive and persistent and may require much time and attention. Demanding traits can be associated with anxiety and/or personality concerns.

Possible signs of a student who is demanding:

  • a sense of entitlement
  • an inability to empathize
  • a need for control
  • difficulty in dealing with ambiguity
  • perfectionism
  • difficulty with structure/limits/boundaries
  • dependency
  • fears about handling life

What you can do:

  • Talk to the student in a place that is safe and comfortable
  • Remain calm and in control
  • Set clear limits and hold the student to the allotted time for the discussion
  • Emphasize behaviors that are and aren’t acceptable
  • Respond quickly and with clear limits to behavior that disrupts class
  • If appropriate, remind the student of the campus resources available to them


  • Arguing with the student
  • Accommodating inappropriate requests
  • Adjusting your schedule or policies to accommodate the student
  • Ignoring inappropriate behavior that has an impact on you or other students
  • Feeling obligated to take care of the student or feeling guilty for not doing more

Responding to a Student who is Disruptive

There is no one cause of disruptive behaviors, but instead many possible causes such as frustration, boredom, mental health issues, impulsiveness, or reflections of the student’s personal lives. Follow the guidelines of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities provides on how to address disruptive behavior.

Responding to a Student with a Suspected Eating Disorder

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating are among the most common types of eating disorders. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse may coincide with eating disorders.

Symptoms associated with eating disorders can include:

  • significant weight loss or weight gain
  • fatigue
  • increased susceptibility to illness
  • obsession with food that interferes with life
  • extreme moodiness
  • social withdrawal
  • perfectionism
  • fainting
  • feeling out of control

What you can do:

  • Know your resources prior to going into the conversation
  • Follow the SEEN (PDF) strategy
  • Document your interactions and attempts to reach out

Responding to a Student who is Severely Disoriented or Psychotic

The main feature of psychotic thinking is poor reality testing or “being out of touch with reality.”

Symptoms include:

  • disorganized speech and behavior
  • extremely odd or eccentric behavior
  • inappropriate or complete lack of emotion
  • bizarre behavior that could indicate hallucinations
  • strange beliefs that involve a serious misinterpretation of reality
  • social withdrawal
  • inability to connect with or track normal communication

What you can do:

  • Speak to the student in a direct and concrete manner regarding your plan for getting them to a safe environment/get help
  • Consult with a counselor at CCSD
  • For immediate assistance, walk the student to our Center. For assistance with a student who is highly impaired, call ECU Police at 252-328-6787


  • Assuming the student will be able to care for him/her/themselves
  • Challenging the student
  • Arguing with unrealistic thoughts
  • Assuming the student understands you

Responding to a Student who is Aggressive or Potentially Violent

Aggression varies from threats, to verbal abuse, to physical abuse and violence. It is very difficult to predict aggression and violence.

Some indicators of potential violence include:

  • paranoia / mistrust
  • an unstable school or vocational history
  • a history of juvenile violence or substance abuse
  • prior history of violence or abuse
  • fascination with weapons
  • history of cruelty to animals as a child or adolescent
  • impulse control problems

What you can do:

  • Assess your level of safety – call ECU Police (252-328-6787) if you feel in danger
  • Remain in an open area with a visible means of escape
  • Stay calm and gain control of the situation by setting limits
  • Use a time-out strategy (that is, ask the student to reschedule a meeting with you once they have calmed down)
  • Consult with or report to the UBCT


  • Staying in a situation in which you feel unsafe
  • Meeting alone with the student
  • Escalating the situation by engaging in yelling or challenging the student
  • Ignoring signs that the student’s anger is escalating
  • Touching the student or crowding their sense of personal space