Recognizing Students in Distress

When to Get Involved—and What to Do

Faculty and staff members are often the first to notice a student experiencing distress.  If you observe a student who is showing signs of difficulty, please alert the SDCC, Dean of Students, or Academic Advising.

You do not have to take on the role of counselor, but we may encourage you to have a more direct conversation with the student to gather additional information, express your concerns, and offer resource referral information.

Identifying Distress Before it Becomes a Crisis

There are oftentimes indications that a student is experiencing distress long before a situation escalates. To support our students in maintaining their mental health and maximizing their intellectual growth, it’s important to identify difficulties as early as possible.

What to Look for

While the presence of one of the following indicators alone does not necessarily mean that a student is experiencing severe distress, the more indicators you notice, the more likely that he or she needs help. When in doubt, consult with the SDCC.


  • Repeated absences from class, section, or lab
  • Missed assignments, exams, or appointments
  • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work
  • Written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, or confusion; essays or papers that focus on suicide or death
  • Patterns of perfectionism: Can’t accept themselves if they don’t get an A

Behavioral and Emotional

  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or loss
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling, or aggressive comments
  • More withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; severe anxiety or irritability
  • Lack of response to outreach from staff


  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns
  • Disorganized speech, rapid or slurred speech, confusion

If you are concerned, Responding to Students in Distress identifies two paths you can pursue—speaking directly with the student or referring him or her to a WPI resource such as the SDCC, Academic Advising, or WPI Care Team.

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Student Support Network

Where students are trained and committed to improving the quality of life for all members of the WPI community.

Safety Risk Indicators

These signs may indicate a student is an immediate danger to him or herself:

  • Written or verbal statements that mention despair, suicide, or death
  • Severe hopelessness, depression, isolation, and withdrawal
  • Statements to the effect that the student is “going away for a long time”
  • Physical or verbal aggression is directed at self, others, animals, or property
  • The student is unresponsive to the external environment; he or she is
    • incoherent or passed out
    • disconnected from reality/exhibiting psychosis
    • displaying unmitigated disruptive behavior
  • The situation feels threatening or dangerous to you

Stay with the student and contact the WPI Police at