Understanding and Responding to Individuals in Distress

Understanding Individuals in Distress

At one time or another everyone feels upset or distressed. However, there are three levels of concern which, when present over time, suggest that these problems may be outside the norm. It is important to consider each type of behavior in context for the individual in question.


When an individual is emotionally troubled (e.g., depressed, manic, unstable), you may observe the following behaviors:

  • Changes in academic performance in the classroom
  • Scores on exams significantly drop
  • Changes in pattern of interaction
  • Changes in physical appearance
  • Problems concentrating, remembering things or making decisions


In an individual exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior, you may observe the following:

  • Repeating requests for special consideration
  • New or regularly occurring behavior which may interfere with class management or be disruptive to other individual or college employees
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses (venting, screaming, swearing)
  • Persistent sadness or unexplained crying
  • High levels of irritability or inappropriate excitement
  • Vague threats to self or others; demanding, verbally abusive or intimidating behavior
  • Substance misuse and/or abuse


When an individual is deficient in skills that regulate emotion, cognition, self, behavior and relationships, you may observe the following:

  • Statements related to death or dying or feelings of hopelessness
  • Direct threats of harm to self or others
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Display of a weapon
  • Inability to communicate easily
  • Irrational conversation or speech that seems disconnected
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that are not there, beliefs or actions at odds with reality)
  • Suspiciousness, irrational feelings of persecution or paranoia
  • Sends threatening correspondence

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Responding to Individuals in Distress

Responses to Distressed and Disturbed Behaviors:

  • Talk to the person in private
  • Consult with a professional counselor
  • Listen to the individual and express your concern in a non-judgmental way
  • Know your own limits. Don’t get more involved in the person’s life than is comfortable or appropriate for you (e.g., determine the length of the conversation, when and where it will take place and what resources you can use.)
  • Ask if the person is considering suicide (See responding to suicidal concerns.)
  • Identify options for the person; for example, a referral to the college counseling center
  • Make a report to the CARE Team

Responses to Dysregulation:

  • If the crisis is life-threatening or if the individual’s behavior is extreme, call 911 from a college extension or 972-860-4290 from a cell phone and convey to the dispatcher that this is a life-threatening situation and you need immediate assistance.
    • If others are present, ask them to step away
    • Be calm, clear and observant
    • After the situation has been resolved, please notify the [insert college name] CARE Team by submitting a referral form, so that a follow-up can be initiated
  • If you feel threatened or intimidated, call 911 from a college extension or 972-860-4290 from a cell phone and convey to the dispatcher that you need help immediately. Determine if you feel safe. If you feel unsafe, then leave the area. Remain in an open area, preferably with an exit door near you. And consider the following:
    • Wait for assistance
    • Keep a safe distance and don’t move toward the person
    • Do not attempt an intervention. Intervening at this point may trigger physical acting out behavior and jeopardize your safety and the safety of others around you
    • Do not get in a power struggle, make false promises, threaten or use jargon
    • Remain calm, enforce limits, listen, be aware of nonverbal behavior and be consistent
    • After the situation has been resolved, please notify the MVC CARE Team by submitting a referral form, so that a follow-up can be initiated
  • Take Care of Yourself: Situations such as these can have an impact on you. If you would like to talk to a mental health professional about what happened, contact Human Resources to get connected to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

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Level      ​

Description      ​

    Characteristics                                           ​

A student in DISTRESS​

This is a student who shows signs of being in personal distress, of having significant personal problems that are revealing themselves in behaviors that cause those around them, especially those who care about them, to be concerned for them (and which left unattended may become more serious or critical problems).

Observed by a Student

·          More than other students

o    Sadder:  most of time, cries easily, no appetite or energy, feels hopeless, etc.

o    More Anxious:  worries all the time, restless, easily distracted, circular thinking, etc.

o    More Withdrawn: quite getting together, not going out, not returning phone calls, etc.

o    More Angry:  always upset, easily irritated, wants to argue, etc.

o    Not a cultural or family difference

·          Strong change in behavior, from how you know them to be

o    Much more of one of the above than they used to be

o    Dramatic increase in use of alcohol/drugs

o    Not a “bad day”, more a new way of being for them

·          Major Traumatic Event

o    One of the above caused by major bad news or a major loss

o    Seems to be more than typical grief or shock – lasts longer, behavior stranger

Observed by Faculty

·          The characteristics in "observed by a Student"

o    Odd, different behavior from other students, notable in class or before/after class

o    Sudden change in how they interact in class or with you before/after class

o    Notice other students treating them as different, perhaps overhear comments

·          Change in academic performance in class, how they focus/analyze/questions

·          Dramatic drop in grades, or in attendance

Observed by Staff

·          The characteristics in "observed by a Student"

·          If interact briefly, behavior strange/different enough to be noticeable even in a brief encounter

If in a program, know them well enough to see either differences form other students or from how you have known them to be​

A student causing a


This is a student whose personal distress has grown to the point that they are acting out those problems in ways that disrupt activities and social interactions around them, creating a concern for both them and those in their proximity​

Observed by a Student

·          Disrupts discussions in Study Center, Lion’s Den, or any other student area – consistently, rudely, without being invited, etc.

·          Appears eager to start verbal fights or talks about physical fights, very aggressive to the point of making you uncomfortable

·          Highly manipulative or exaggerated emotional responses

·          Disruptive or aggressive on campus in any manner that makes you feel unsafe/very uncomfortable, but not really scared yet

Observed by Faculty

·          Someone disruptive enough that regular classroom techniques do not seem enough to manage the situation

·          Someone who seems to be disturbed enough themselves (angry, hurt, anxious, etc.) they cannot seem to help or control their disruptive behavior (or no longer care that they are disruptive)

Observed by Staff

·          So disruptive that they appear to bother other students or to keep staff from effectively meeting the needs of other students

Appear to bring so much emotion to  the table that what you can provide or change is not sufficient to meet what is bothering them, either their emotional level never goes down or it does temporarily but is back the next time they come to you​

A student posing a DANGER​

This is a student whose personal distress is beyond the point of disruption, who is now acting out (or potentially acting out) in a manner which may cause emotional and/or physical harm to themselves and/or to others.   May present as loud, manic, and angry or may be very quiet and withdrawn (can be great danger)​

Observed by Student/Faculty/Staff

·          They talk about harming themselves, about how and when they might do it

·          They are harming themselves by extreme cutting, eating disorder, alcohol/drug use, high –risk behaviors

·          They talk about harming others, about how and when they might do it

·          They threaten you or someone else, verbally or physically

·          You find out that they have a weapon with them, or often do

·          Appear extremely irrational, extreme emotional outbursts, loss of temper to point of  loss of control, manic behavior, extremely abusive relationship, etc.

·          Irrational or disconnected speech

·          Are highly suspicious of others or have strong feelings of persecution