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How to Help a Friend: Indicators of Distress

Sometimes friends will let you know in a direct way that something is bothering her/him by telling you about it. At other times, friends may not directly tell you that something is wrong, depending on the person and/or the situation with which they are dealing. At times like this, it is important to know what kinds of things to notice in your friends that will signal that she/he is overstressed and overtaxed.

Listed below are some categories of Indicators of Distress* with specific examples under each category. This is not a comprehensive list of all Indicators, but rather, a listing of problems that typically may occur. As you read through these Indicators, please also keep in mind the following:

  • Friends that you choose to talk to may or may not have a mental health concern. Respond to her/his behavior. Don’t try to diagnose.
  • When in doubt, it is always okay to refer to or consult with Student Counseling 320-589-6060
  • None of these Indicators alone is sufficient for predicting mental health problems, aggression and/or violence to self or others. However, when they occur in combination they may suggest your friend is in distress and that you may want to draw in other professionals for advice on how to handle the situation.
  • Know your limits and don’t overextend yourself. Experience shows that sometimes other students get too involved in trying to help their friends and then struggle if their efforts are not having the positive effect they are seeking.
  • It is better to act sooner rather than later.
  • The intention here is to increase your awareness of signs that something might be wrong with your friend. However, the information below is not meant to suggest that you must be a “junior therapist” and ask questions to pull out information. Rather, these are behaviors that you may observe and/or that your friend may share in conversation.
  • Cultural factors often play a role in how students communicate distress. Students from some cultural backgrounds may believe that it is shameful to talk about their problems with anyone outside of their family. Others may communicate distress through complaints about physical symptoms.
  • International students may experience signs of “culture shock” at some point after their arrival in the United States. This is a common reaction to adjusting to different beliefs, attitudes, and values in a new country. Problems encountered by an international student may create a complex situation for her/him because of the rules and regulations regarding foreign citizens and whether they are in or out of status. The International Student Program, 320-589-6094, can provide assistance to students or concerned friends and make sure that any decisions made to solve the problems will not jeopardize the student’s ability to remain in the U.S.

Academic Indicatiors of Distress

  • Missed assignments
  • Deterioration in quality of work
  • A drop in grades
  • Repeated absences from class
  • A negative change in classroom performance
  • Verbal aggressiveness in class meetings
  • Disorganized or erratic performance
  • Continual seeking of special accommodations (late papers, extensions, postponed examinations, etc.)
  • Essays or creative work that indicate extremes of hopelessness, social isolation, rage, or despair

Personal/Interpersonal Indicators of Distress

  • Tearfulness
  • Unprovoked anger or hostility
  • Excessive dependency
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Exaggerated personality traits (e.g., more withdrawn or animated than normal)
  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or other difficulties
  • A hunch or gut-level reaction that something is wrong
  • Expressions of concern about a student in the class by his/her peers
  • Changes in typical clothing (baggy clothing; long sleeves; inappropriate for weather)

Physical Indicators of Distress

  • Deterioration in physical appearance
  • Visible changes in weight
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Appearing bleary-eyed, hung over, or smelling of alcohol
  • Appearing sick or ill
  • Chapped hands

Environmental Indicators of Distress

  • Observations from janitorial staff
  • Not picking up mail in residence hall mailbox
  • Not using meal card in the residence hall dining room
  • Formal disciplinary notices in the residence hall

Safety/Risk Indicators of Distress

  • Statements to the effect that the student is “going away for a long time”
  • Any written note or verbal statement that has a “sense of finality” (possible suicidality)
  • Severe depression
  • Any history of suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Giving away of prized possessions
  • Self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors
  • Out-of-control behavior
  • Essays or papers that focus on despair, suicide, death, violence or aggression
  • Verbal or written (email) threats of harm to self or others



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