Recognizing & Responding to Students in Distress

A Guide for Princeton University Faculty, Administrators, and Staff

Faculty and staff are often the first contact for students in distress. This page outlines steps to respond compassionately and effectively to our students.

Counseling & Psychological Services (CPS) is always available to faculty and staff for consultation, guidance and training in responding to students in distress. Call us at 609-258-3141 or 609-258-3139 (after hours). 

In an emergency, it is always appropriate to call 911 to reach Public Safety or local emergency responders.

Learn more about:

Recognizing Signs of Distress

Academic Indicators:

  • Missed assignments or repeated absences
  • Deterioration in work quality
  • Written work with disturbing content (e.g., suicidal thoughts, violent thoughts)
  • Disorganized or erratic performance

Personal/Physical Indicators:

  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Coming to class bleary-eyed or hung over
  • Sleeping in class or excessive fatigue
  • Inappropriate or exaggerated behavior (e.g., aggressiveness, emotional outbursts, crying)
  • Withdrawal from interactions with faculty and peers

Other Factors: 

  • Peers expressing concern about a student
  • Direct knowledge that a student has experienced a trauma or loss
  • References to harming oneself or others
  • Online postings that seem threatening or concerning 

Reaching Out to Distressed Students

Do:

  • Speak with the student privately
  • Listen carefully, ask open ended questions, and reflect what you hear
  • Focus concerns on behaviors that you have observed that concern you
  • Ask how the student has tried to cope, and what else the student thinks might help
  • Express willingness to help
  • Help him/her explore options for help and sources of support
  • If able, offer to follow up with the student, plan a time to check in
  • Give the student time to talk; know that you don’t have to fill silence

Don't:

  • Don’t promise your confidentiality (though you may note that CPS is confidential)
  • Don’t leave the student alone if you have concerns about their safety
  • Don’t offer reassurance before you’ve heard the student out
  • Don’t rush into problem solving
  • Don’t underestimate the power of listening and validating
  • Don’t involve yourself beyond your limits
  • Don’t debate with an angry student; often after having a chance to vent, students will be more open to help
  • Don’t meet in an isolated place if you have any concern for your or the student’s safety

Asking about Suicide

One of the biggest barriers to reaching out is the worry that it’s none of our business or that students will be embarrassed. But students actually feel cared for and recognized when asked how they’re doing. Asking about suicide is difficult but potentially life-saving.

If you hear or see signs of hopelessness or depression, you might say: “Sometimes when people are feeling bad they have thoughts of suicide. Have you had any thoughts about hurting or killing yourself?”

Asking about suicide will not give someone the idea or make things worse. In fact, it may be a relief for the student to know you’re open to hearing about whatever they’re feeling.

If a student is having thoughts of suicide:

  • continue talking
  • find out if they’ve acted on or plan to act on the thoughts.
  • express concern and say that you want to make sure they get connected to further help.
  • call CPS with the student, or walk them over to McCosh Health Center. If the student refuses, call the student’s director of student life with the student, in order to make a plan to keep them safe.

Connecting Students to Help

When a student of concern presents to you, assess whether the student reports suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Follow the table below to determine next steps.

  During business hours (Monday-Friday, 8:45 a.m. - 4:45 p.m.) Outside of business hours
Yes Walk student to CPS (McCosh Health Center, 3rd Floor) or contact Public Safety to escort student over to CPS Contact Public Safety (609-258-3134) and request transport to McCosh Health Center
No Assess if the student is open to coming to CPS.  Encourage student to call CPS for an appointment (609-258-3141) Assess if the student is open to coming to CPS. Encourage student to call CPS for an appointment (609-258-3141)
Unsure Call CPS (609-258-3141) to consult with a clinician Call CPS (609-258-3141) to consult with a clinician

If the student is not open to coming to CPS, you may call CPS (609-258-3141) to consult with a clinician to talk about ways to refer the student or other options including contacting Deans or DSLs.

Following up with Students of Concern

  • Consider reaching out to the student after you talk, encouraging them to let you know if they need further support.
  • You may file a Student-in-Difficulty (SID) report or speak directly to the student’s dean, director of studies, or director of student life (DSL). Deans & DSLs may reach out to students and follow up on concerns.
  • Call CPS (609-258-3141) to discuss concerns you have about the student, and decide whether there are any other steps to take.

Additional Resources

To learn more about university mental health and suicide prevention:

Helpful Support Contacts

  • Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students: Call the student’s residential college dean, director of student life, or Associate Dean Mellisa Thompson at 609-258-3052. For a list of contacts, visit ODUS' website.
  • Office of the Dean of Graduate School: Contact Associate Dean Lisa Schreyer for concerns about a student’s well-being (609-258-3028; schreyer@princeton.edu). Contact Deputy Dean Cole Crittenden for academic status and standing issues (609-258-3902; ccritt@princeton.edu)
  • Office of Disability Services: 609-258-8840 
  • Gender + Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC): Email gsrc@princeton.edu
  • SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, & Education) office: 609-258-3310
  • Peer Health Advisers (PHAs): trained students who can provide peer support, answer questions about health services and provide referrals to other students. Contact a PHA.
  • Office of Religious Life: Clergy available to counsel students.