Recognizing Students in Distress

It is common for students to feel distress at one time or another due to difficulties with adjustment, stress, anxiety, self-esteem, and relationship problems and may exhibit symptoms such as depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and more. There are warning signs when symptoms of distress persist over time and may suggest that the problem may be a cause for concern.

A crisis is a situation in which an individual’s usual style of coping is no longer effective, and the emotional or physiological response begins to escalate.

Knowing the severity of a student’s distress is important to providing the best response and support.

You might be the first person to notice, or you might be the first person who is in a position to assist the student. It is not necessary that you take on the role of the student’s counselor. It is important that you consult with campus resources that can speak directly with the student, or refer the student to an appropriate resource. If you encounter a student who exhibits worrisome behaviors, you can contact the appropriate resource(s) listed in this resource guide.

If you believe the situation is an emergency, contact the Public Safety Department at 313-993-1234.

What to Look For

Distress can often look different to us as it is based on the interworking of the individual student. Look for noticeable changes in a person, relative to what you know about the individual. Try to identify groupings of indicators, and note frequency, duration, and severity — not just isolated symptoms. The following indicators of distress, although not an exhaustive list, are some of the most common signs of distress. Use these indicators as a guideline, along with the “What To Do” section of this document.


  • Sudden decline in quality of work and grades
  • Repeated absences
  • Disorganized performance
  • Multiple requests for extensions
  • Overly demanding of faculty and staff time and attention
  • Disturbing content in writing or presentation (i.e. violence, death, etc.)
  • Continuous classroom disruptions
  • You find yourself doing more personal rather than academic counseling during office hours


  • Marked changes in physical appearance including deterioration in grooming, hygiene, or weight loss/gain
  • Excessive fatigue/sleep disturbance
  • Intoxication, hangovers, or smelling of alcohol
  • Disoriented or “out of it”
  • Garbled, tangential, disconnected, or slurred speech
  • Behavior is out of context or bizarre
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  • Self-disclosure of personal distress such as family problems, financial difficulties, grief, or relationship issues
  • Unusual/disproportional emotional response to events
  • Excessive tearfulness; panic reactions
  • Irritability or unusual apathy
  • Verbal abuse (i.e. taunting, badgering, intimidation)
  • Expression of concern about the student by their peers
  • Delusions and paranoia
safety concerns sign


  • Unprovoked anger or hostility
  • Academic assignments dominated by themes of extreme hopelessness, rage, worthlessness, isolation, despair
  • Acting out, suicidal ideation, violent behaviors
  • Physical violence (shoving, grabbing, assault, use of weapon)
  • Implying or making direct threat of harm to self (self-injury or suicidal thoughts)
  • Communicating threats via email, text message, social media
  • Stalking or harassing

What to do:

Follow the chart to determine who to contact when faced with a distressed or disruptive student.

Is the student's behavior clearly and imminently risky, dangerous or threatening, including self-harm behavior?

Call Public Safety


The student shows signs of distress, and I’m not sure they have the ability to cope. “I’m concerned about this student.” Complete the BIT Care Form:
Or contact the Dean of Student's Office to assist with identifying appropriate offices to contact.
The main office number is 313-993-1028


The student is struggling academically and/or personally and could use some support. Complete the BIT Care Form:
Or contact the Dean of Students Office.


Level 1: Emergency
Student is at IMMEDIATE RISK:

  • Plan/intent of taking their own life or someone else’s life
  • Student has taken recent steps to end their life or harm someone else

Level 2: Urgent
Student is dealing with personal crisis that needs rapid attention such as:

  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts
  • Recent sexual assault or other significant trauma
  • Death of a significant person in their life
  • Psychotic thinking (hallucinations, delusions)

Level 3: Standard Appointment
Student is seeking ongoing counseling services for concerns such as:

  • Crying spells/tearfulness
  • Anxiety/stress/panic attacks/depression
  • Relationship concerns/break ups
  • Self-image/eating and body image concerns
  • Academic difficulties
  • Adjustment/homesickness
  • Self-esteem/self-confidence
  • Trouble making life decisions

Level 4: Consultation
Student not interested in therapy but would like to talk to a therapist about:

  • Concern for a friend
  • Needing a referral for community provider (for medication or counseling)

Level 1 & Level 2 should be walked over to the Wellness Center and will be seen by a therapist as soon as someone is available.

Level 3 & Level 4 will need to call 313-993-1459, option 2, to schedule an appointment. For concerned faculty and staff regarding student, it is best to call with the student present to get appointment scheduled as a “warm handoff”. These students do not need to be walked over to Counseling Services

All Services in the Wellness Center are Confidential

The Wellness Center staff recognizes the importance of privacy and safety as the basis of effective therapy. We do not share information about students seeking help in the Wellness Center with anyone without written permission. Safeguarding information shared by students in the context of the counselor-client relationship is an ethical and legal responsibility of all Detroit Mercy clinicians.

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    Student Confidentiality and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

    Information about students’ health and safety can be sensitive, and should be treated discreetly. However, the obligation to protect student information must also be balanced with the need for appropriate university officials to be able to communicate about students of concern and ensure they get the help and support they need.

    What is FERPA?

    The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of personally identifiable information from students’ education records. While this law generally prohibits the release of such information without the consent of the student, there are exceptions to FERPA that university officials can use.

    Am I violating FERPA if I release information about a student’s educational record?

    • University of Detroit Mercy faculty and staff may disclose personally identifiable information from an educational record to appropriate individuals in connection with a health and safety concern.
    • Information may be released to parents, police, or other Detroit Mercy personnel if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health and safety of the student or other individuals.
    • FERPA also includes a broad exception that allows university officials to share information from students’ education records with other school officials within Detroit Mercy who have “legitimate educational interests” in the information, e.g., if the official needs to review an education record in order to fulfill his or her professional responsibility.

    Are observations of a student’s behavior protected under FERPA?

    • Observations of a student’s conduct or statements made by a student are not educational records protected under FERPA.
    • Concerning behavior should be shared with Detroit Mercy personnel when there is concern for a student’s well-being. This information helps us determine what steps to take to best support the student.

    What’s the bottom line?

    • If you’re concerned about a student, err on the side of safety: communicate and consult with an appropriate colleague to ensure the student is getting the help and support they need.

    Campus Resources

    Dean of Students Office

    McNichols Campus: Student Union,  Room 101 | 313-993-1028
    We are deeply committed to providing students with a wide range of programs and services designed to assist in making a student's life at the University vibrant. Please contact The Dean of Student's Office should you have a student of concern as the dean will assist with identifying appropriate offices to contact. The main office number is 313.993.1028

    Wellness Center

    McNichols Campus: West Quad, Room 104 | 313-993-1459
    The Personal Counseling Office is an appropriate and safe place for a student to express and explore thoughts and feelings with the hope of becoming a more confident, competent and integrated person. Any student experiencing significant emotional distress is encouraged to make an appointment with the personal counselor. Time-limited individual, group and family counseling is available.

    Strict confidentiality is assured by rigid adherence to professional ethical standards and the State of Michigan professional regulatory requirements. The service is free to all enrolled Detroit Mercy students. You can call for an appointment.

    University Ministry

    McNichols Campus: Student Union, Room 106 |  313-993-1560
    University Ministry assists the entire university community in living out its Mission, especially as it seeks to integrate the spiritual, ethical, and social development of students with their intellectual learning. All programs and activities are open to people of all faiths. While the Ministry offices does provide special services to the Catholic community, its mission is to support people of all faith traditions in their spiritual development.

    Title XI

    Title IX is vitally important in educational settings as it prohibits sex and gender-based discrimination including sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. Title IX protects the university community and applies in equal measure to academic, educational, extracurricular, athletic and other university programs that take place on or off university property.  Find contact information for the Coordinator and Deputy Coordinators on their website.

    Emergency Resources

    University of Detroit Mercy, Public Safety Department

    24-hour Communication Center:  313-993-1234
    Department Locations:

    • McNichols Campus: Student Union, East end
    • Riverfront Campus: First Floor, Southeast corner
    • Corktown Campus: Clinic Building, Main Entrance, First Floor

    The mission of the University of Detroit Mercy Department of Public Safety is to provide a safe environment through effective and professional police services to a diverse population in an educational setting. The officers in Public Safety are as familiar to the students as their professors or resident advisors. This is accomplished through around-the-clock highly visible patrol, which includes marked vehicles, bikes and foot deployment. In addition, officers stress basic safety practices to all our students and encourage them to take advantage of the escort service, use the “buddy system,” and walk in well-lit areas.

    Additional Resources:

    Emergency Assistance:  Call 911 for Police – Fire – Medical

    University of Detroit Mercy Public Safety/Emergency Line — 313-993-1234

    Call for help

    University of Detroit Mercy Public Safety Escort Services

    • McNichols Campus: 313-993-1234
    • Riverfront Campus: 313-993-1234
    • Corktown Campus: 313-494-6706

    TALK National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7) — 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)

    HELP Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse) — 800-662-HELP (800-662-4357)

    Crisis Text Line Get Help Now (24/7) — Text START to 741-741

    Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network Sexual Assault National Line — 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673)

    Rape Victim’s Assistance Program at Detroit Police Department Crisis Line — 313-833-1660

    Collegiate Assistance Program (Nurse Line 24/7) — 877-643-5130

    Center for Disease Control, National STD and AIDS Hotline — 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636)

    Online Resources

    Prevention, Treatment, and Support Services

    Additional Resources:

    The agencies mentioned here are familiar with health insurance procedures.

    Catholic Social Services of Wayne County
    9851 Hamilton Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202 | 313-883-2100
    Services: Individual, group, family therapy for alcohol and/or drug abuse

    Clinton Counseling Center
    2 Crocker Boulevard, Suite 103, Mt. Clemens MI 48043 | 586-468-2266
    Services: Confidential individual, group and family counseling

    Oakland Family Services 
    114 Orchard Lake Road, Pontiac MI 48341 | 248-858-7766
    Services: Comprehensive alcohol and drug abuse programs, recovery groups, individual and family counseling. The following agencies are designated by the state as basic assessment and referral programs. Contact the agency located in your county and a counselor will help you in finding the type of assistance best for you.

    Wayne County

    Detroit Department of Health Bureau of Substance Abuse
    Health Services Technical Assistance Addiction Treatment Services, Inc.
    1151 Taylor, Building 1, Detroit MI 48202 | 313-876-4070

    Wayne and Monroe Counties (excluding Detroit)

    Downriver Community Conference – Central Diagnostic & Referral Unit
    15100 Northline Road Southgate MI 48195 | 734-283-9444 or 800-686-6543

    Macomb County

    Office of Substance Abuse Services Community Assessment Referral and Education
    31900 Utica Road, Fraser MI 48026 | 586-541-2273 or 877-484-8884

    Oakland County

    Oakland County Health Division Office of Substance Abuse
    250 Elizabeth Lake Road, Suite 1570, Pontiac MI 48341 |248-858-5200 or 888-350-0900 ext. 85200

    For the most current information, visit the Michigan Department of Community Health website  and click on “Mental Health and Substance Abuse.”