Dealing with a Person in Distress

Adapted from the ASJA Law and Policy Report, No. 26, ASJA & Gary Pavela, 2001.

What are some signs that a person may be in distress?

A person in distress may not be disruptive to others, but may exhibit behaviors which indicate something is wrong, show signs of emotional distress and indicate that assistance is needed.  Such persons may also be reluctant or unable to acknowledge a need for personal help.  Behaviors may include: 

  • serious performance problems or a change from consistently doing well to unaccountably poor performance.excessive absences, especially if the person has previously demonstrated consistent attendance.
  • unusual or markedly changed patterns of interaction (avoidance of participation, excessive anxiety when called upon, domination of discussions, etc.).
  • other characteristics that suggest the person is having trouble managing stress successfully (a depressed, lethargic mood; very rapid speech; swollen, red eyes; marked change in personal dress and hygiene; falling asleep during class/work, etc.).
  • repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions, especially if the person appears uncomfortable or highly emotional while disclosing the circumstances prompting the request.
  • new or repeated behavior which pushes the limits of decorum and which interferes with effective management of the immediate environment.
  • unusual or exaggerated emotional responses which are obviously inappropriate to the situation.
How should I respond to a student who is troubled or showing signs of distress?

For a person who is mildly or moderately troubled, you can choose to handle the situation in one or more of the following ways:

  • deal directly with the behavior/problem according to classroom/workplace protocol.
  • address the situation on a more personal level.
  • consult with a colleague, department head, Center for Counseling and Consultation, a Behavioral Assessment Team member, and/or the Office of Human Resources.
  • refer the person to an appropriate campus resource.
How do I refer a student to counseling?

Here are steps to follow when making a referral for counseling:

  • Recommend they seek counseling services through the Center for Counseling and Consultation (CCC; 301-738-6273).
  • Determine the student’s willingness to go to a helping resource.  Reassure the student that it is an act of strength to ask for help.
  • Dispute the myth that only "weak" or "crazy" people go for counseling.
  • Remind them that campus counseling services are free and confidential.
  • Offer to help make the initial contact by calling, or you may offer to go with the student to the CCC.
What are the warning signs of disruptive behavior?

A severely troubled or disruptive person exhibits behavior that requires immediate attention and care.  These problems are the easiest to identify.  Examples include:

  • highly disruptive behavior (hostility, aggression, violence, etc.).
  • inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech; unconnected, disjointed or rambling thoughts).
  • loss of contact with reality (seeing or hearing things which others cannot see or hear; beliefs or actions greatly at odds with reality or probability).
  • stalking behaviors.
  • inappropriate communications (including threatening letters, e-mail messages, harassment).
  • overtly communicating suicidal thoughts including referring to suicide as a current option (verbally or in written assignments).
  • threats to harm others.


How should I respond to a disruptive person?

Here are steps to follow when responding to a disruptive person:

  • Remain calm and know whom to call for help, if necessary.  Find someone to stay with the student while calls to the appropriate resources are made.
  • Remember that it is NOT your responsibility to provide the professional help needed for a severely troubled/disruptive person.  You need only to make the call and request assistance.
  • When a student expresses a direct threat to themselves or others, or acts in a bizarre, highly irrational or disruptive way, call the Montgomery County Police at 9-1-1.  If the situation permits, notify USG Security after you call the police.  For USG Security dial x6065 from any campus phone or 301-738-6065 from any cell phone or outside line.
How should I respond when a student displays inappropriate behavior in my class?

Faculty members have broad authority to manage their classrooms and establish reasonable guidelines for class discussions that ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate in an orderly manner.  If you believe a student’s behavior is inappropriate, consider a general word of caution rather than singling a student out or embarrassing the student.  "If the behavior in question is irritating, but not disruptive, try speaking with the student after class.  Most students are unaware of distracting habits or mannerisms, and have no intent to be offensive or disruptive.  There may be rare circumstances where it is necessary to speak to a student during class about his or her behavior.  Correct the student in a manner, indicated that further discussion can occur after class" (Pavela, 2001, p.5).

If a student’s behavior reaches the point that it interferes with your ability to conduct the class or the ability of other students to benefit from the class, the student should be asked to leave the room for the remainder of the class period. The student should be provided with a reason for this action and an opportunity to discuss the matter with you as soon as is practical.  In such situations, consultation and referral to Student Judicial Programs may be appropriate.