Discover Your Island

How to Know When a Student Needs Your Help

Concerned about the well-being of a student?


I-CARE can help!

College can be a stressful time for students. Emotional distress can not only have an impact on a student's mental and physical well-being but can interfere with academic performance as well. Some examples of students who may be in need of I-CARE support are those struggling with sadness, depression, suicidal thoughts or actions, thoughts of harming others, repeated classroom disruption, exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, or showing signs of threatening behavior which does not pose an immediate risk to harm. Your care, concern and assistance can often be enough to help a student, however, there may be times when you may need to play a critical role in referring a student for appropriate assistance and in motivating him or her to seek help. A few guidelines for responding to students in distress are summarized below.

Recognizing Students in Distress

Levels of Distress/Disturbance:  The “D” Scale
LOW RISK-Distress – If a student is ‘distressed’, one or more of the following may be accurate: 

  • Emotionally troubled (depressed, anxious, unstable moods)
  • May have been impacted by an actual or perceived situational stressor and/or traumatic event
  • Behavior may subside when stressor is removed or trauma is addressed
  • May show psychiatric symptoms if they are not coping/adapting to stressors/trauma

MODERATE RISK-Disturbance – If a student is ‘disturbed’, one or more of the following may be accurate:

  • The student is becoming increasingly behaviorally disruptive; unusual and/or bizarre acting
  • May be destructive, apparently harmful or threatening to others
  • Student may be engaging in substance misuse or abuse, or the student could be self-medicating

HIGH RISK-Dysregulation – If a student is ‘dysregulated’, one or more of the following may be accurate:

  • Suicidal (expressing thoughts, feelings, or intentions of wanting to cause harm to oneself)
  • Parasuicidal (extremes of self-injurious behavior; eating disorders)
  • The student presents as hostile, aggressive, or relationally abusive

Click here to view the NaBITA Threat Assessment Tool. Threat Assessment in the Campus Setting, January 2009 – A Publication of


When in doubt REPORT. If an incident seems minor at first, but then other similar incidents occur in close proximity this may indicate a pattern. If you see something, say something. You can always make an informational report just to err on the side of caution.

Best Ways to Help

  • Observe: The first important step in assisting a student in distress is to be familiar with the signs of distress and notice their occurrence. An attentive observer will pay close attention to direct communication as well as implied or hidden feelings.
  • Initiate Contact: don’t ignore concerning behavior displayed by a student…respond to it immediately!  Talk to the student privately, in a direct and honest manner, indicating your concern. Be specific with the student about the behavior or observations that have caused you concern.  Early feedback, intervention and/or referral can prevent more serious problems from developing.
  • Listen Objectively: To listen to someone is to refrain from imposing your own point of view, to withhold advice unless it is requested, and to concentrate on the feelings and thoughts of the person you are trying to help, instead of your own. Listening is the most important skill used in helping. Some things to listen for include a student's view of him or herself, view of their current situation or environment, and their view of the future. Negative comments about these issues may indicate a student is in trouble.
  • Offer Support and Assistance: among the most important helping tools are interest, concern, and attentive listening.  Listen to the student in a sensitive manner, however, be sure to maintain clear and consistent boundaries.  Convey support and understanding by summarizing what you hear the student saying.  Suggest resources that the student can take advantage of (University Counseling Center, various professionals on campus, clergy, friends, family, etc).
  • Walk the student over to the Counseling Center: located in the Driftwood building, a student can be seen by the Counselor on Duty during normal business hours. If it is after hours you can always call to speak with the Counselor on Duty at 361-825-2703. Afterward, be sure and follow-up with I-CARE so we can ensure the student's continued support. 
  • Consult with I-CARE: if you are unsure if an I-CARE referral is warranted, give us a call for a consultation at 361-825-6219.
  • Consult with the Counseling Center: in your attempt to help a student, you may determine that you need input from a counseling professional.  Counselors at the University Counseling Center can serve as consultants and can suggest possible approaches to take, as well as provide you with support.  Call 361-825-2703 for assistance then follow-up with I-CARE at 361-825-6219.
  • Always Know Your Limits as a Helper: only go as far as your resources and/or training allow; when a student needs more help than you are willing or able to give, it is time to make a referral to the appropriate professional and/or department. Always remember that you can walk a student over to the Counseling Center in the Driftwood building if necessary. Stay with the student until they are seen by the Counselor on Duty.

Listen and Explore Options

  • If the student volunteers personal information related to what you have observed, listen carefully and try to see the issues from his/her point of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.
  • Explore alternatives to deal with the problem (for example, if a student discloses to you that her parents are going through a divorce, which in turn is having a negative effect on her mood and her studies, let her know that we have counselors on campus who can help her so that she doesn’t have to deal with this personal issue on her own)
  • Do reassure the student that you want to support them but may need to consult with and/or refer them to other university staff who are better able to respond to the student’s specific concerns or issues.

Clearly Outline Expectations

  • If the student doesn’t volunteer any personal information or explanation for his/her recent concerning behavior, emphasize that you will be available in the future if and when he/she wishes to speak to you.
  • Depending on the nature of the student’s distressed or disruptive behavior, briefly outline general expectations for classroom conduct and/or class assignments and possible consequences for non-compliance. 
  • Let the student know that you will be making a referral to I-CARE. This is helpful when we reach out to students after a report is made so they know why we are calling.

High-Risk Situations

To prevent violence effectively on college and university campuses, we must accept the premise that most campus violence is preventable. If a student's situation is serious and the student is reluctant or unwilling to seek professional help you must inform the appropriate university officials (e.g. UPD, your supervisor, department chair, I-CARE, Office of Student Engagement and Success, Student Conduct & Community Standards, etc.)-FERPA makes provisions for this.

  1. Nearly all campus threats come from those who are members of the campus community or closely related to it.
  2. Nearly all campus violence is not spontaneous, but targeted and planned.
  3. Nearly all targeted-violent students raise concerns, share their plans, or parts of their plans with others prior to their acts.
  4. Duty of Care – as a member of the Island University, we are all expected to take action if a student is at risk.

The Book on BIT-2011 – A Publication of

Threatening and Dangerous Behavior

  • If a student’s behavior is threatening towards self and/or others, immediately contact University Police Department at 825-4444 (or ext. 4444 if calling from campus)
  • If a student makes you feel unsafe – consult with UPD and a Supervisor; don’t meet the student in an isolated place; set limits with the student.
  • If a student reports suicidal ideation (expressing thoughts, feelings, or intentions about wanting to cause harm to oneself), immediately contact University Counseling Center at 825-2703 (depending on the nature of the ideation, University Police Department may need to be contacted as well); then make a secondary phone call to I-CARE at 361-825-6219.

Suicidal Thoughts or Actions

When a student makes any reference to suicide, threat of suicide, or attempt at suicide, a judgment should be made by a mental health professional about the seriousness of a possible suicidal thought or behavior. Suicide attempts are first and foremost a medical emergency. If danger or suicidal behavior appears imminent: 1) Stay calm and 2) Contact Campus Police at 361-825-4444 or dial 911.

To Save a Life Remember QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer)

Question the person about suicide
Persuade the person to get help
Refer for help

To learn more about QPR, click here.

Debriefing: Tips for You

Faculty and Staff- debrief with a supervisor or department chair to discuss how you are feeling and to come up with a plan. If needed, the employee assistance program is available at 888-993-7650 or call HR at ext. 2630 for more information.

Students-inform your professor, supervisor, RA, or roommate of your concerns (if appropriate) and consider visiting the University Counseling Center in the Driftwood building to talk with someone.

  • Self-care. It is important to take care of ourselves so that we are healthy enough to continue to help others. Develop some self-care strategies that you can use daily to manage stress.
  • Take a break, go for a walk, get outside and enjoy nature, exercise, or do something else that you enjoy to help you to relax and shift your focus.
  • Do some deep breathing exercises or yoga to help re-center yourself.
  • Talk to someone. Call a friend, loved one, or family member just to talk and get your mind off things.