Action Step 1: Recognize

You may notice one or several indicators that could suggest that a student is experiencing difficulty. Or you may have a gut-level feeling that something is amiss. A simple check-in with the student may help you get a better sense of her/his situation.

It is possible that a student exhibiting just one of the signs of distress is only having an off day. However, any single safety risk indicator (e.g., a student writes a paper expressing hopelessness and thoughts of suicide) or a cluster of lesser signs (e.g., emotional outbursts, repeated absences, and noticeable cuts on the arm) indicates a need to take action to support the student.

Academic Indicators

  • Repeated absences
  • Missed assignments, exams, or appointments
  • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work
  • Extreme disorganization or erratic performance
  • Written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, or confusion; essays or papers that focus on suicide or death
  • Continual seeking of special provisions (extensions on papers, make-up exams)
  • Patterns of perfectionism (e.g., can't accept her/himself for not getting an A+)
  • Overblown or disproportionate response to grades or other evaluations

Physical Indicators

  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion; falling asleep in class repeatedly
  • Visible changes in weight; statements about changes in appetite or sleep
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns
  • Frequent or chronic illness
  • Disorganized speech, rapid or slurred speech, or confusion
  • Unusual inability to make eye contact
  • Arrival to class bleary-eyed or smelling of alcohol

Behavioural and Emotional Indicators

  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or loss
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling, or aggressive comments
  • More withdrawn or animated than usual
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; crying or tearfulness
  • Expressions of severe anxiety or irritability
  • Excessively demanding or dependent behaviour
  • Lack of response to outreach from course staff
  • Shakiness, tremors, fidgeting, or pacing

Safety Risk Indicators

  • Written or oral statements that mention despair, suicide, or death
  • Severe hopelessness, helplessness, depression, social isolation, and withdrawal
  • Statements to the effect that the student is “going away for a long time"
  • Written or oral expressions of a desire to injure or kill someone else

If a student is exhibiting any of these signs, s/he may pose an immediate danger to her/himself. In these cases, you should contact professional resources on your campus (such as counselling, health, and emergency services) and ask for assistance.

Emergency Indicators

  • The student is physically or verbally aggressive toward her/himself, others, animals, or property
  • The student is unresponsive to the external environment; s/he is:
    • Incoherent or passed out
    • Demonstrating a severe disturbance of cognitive, behavioural, or emotional functioning
    • Displaying disruptive behaviour that appears to be out of control
  • The situation feels threatening or dangerous to you.

In these or similar situations, call the campus security/local police and ask for immediate assistance.


Other Factors

  • Expressions of concern about a student by her/his peers, teaching assistant, or other colleagues
  • A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong

Students Who Are Verbally Aggressive and Potentially Violent

When a student is faced with a frustrating, seemingly insurmountable challenge, s/he may express anger toward others. Additionally, enhanced access to drugs or alcohol may increase some students' propensity for aggressive behaviour. Certain social situations may also elicit aggressive responses. In some cases, the aggression may be indicative of the onset of a mental health disorder. It is worth noting that—in spite of recent high-profile tragedies—students rarely act out violently.

Violence cannot be predicted, but there are some observable indicators that suggest a person may pose a danger of becoming violent. These include difficulty controlling emotions or behaviour, or difficulty controlling aggressive impulses. Since instructors will not always know the historical or immediate background of a particular student, it is important for them to be aware of “concerning behaviours" and to respond appropriately.

What you can do:

  • If you are concerned that a student may be violent, do not arrange to meet with her/him until you have consulted senior personnel or campus security to determine if this is an appropriate course of action.
  • If a student seems to become angry during a meeting, use a time-out strategy (ask the student to reschedule a meeting with you after s/he has taken more time to think about her/his response).
  • Stay calm and set limits (explain clearly and directly what behaviours are acceptable). For example, you could say, “You certainly have the right to be angry, but using abusive language is not OK."
  • Enlist the help of a co-worker (avoid meeting alone or in a private office with the student).
  • If you feel it is appropriate to continue meeting with a distressed student, remain in an open area with a visible means of escape (remain at a safe distance, sit closest to the door, and keep a phone available to call for help).

Assess your level of safety and be cognizant of your intuition. Call the campus security/local police if you feel the student may harm her/himself, someone else, or you.


Next Up: Step 2: Respond