Guidance for Identifying Students in Distress

A list of behavioral red flags for Faculty and Staff to watch out for when supporting students in distress.

Recognizing suicide risk

The simplest and best advice is to take any concerns about suicide seriously and connect the student to professional help. Avoid offering assurances of complete confidentiality that you may not be able to honor and avoid putting yourself in a situation in which you become the student's main source of support.

No single formula can determine if someone is simply sad or “down” or is severely depressed or at risk for suicide, but these and similar behavioral red flags may warrant professional assistance:

  • Dramatic changes in personality, presentation, hygiene, or functioning, including diminished concentration, extremely depressed mood; declining academic or work performance; agitation or, alternatively, extreme fatigue and sluggishness.
  • Expressions of helplessness, hopelessness or despair: "I feel like I'm in a hole and I can never get out. Things will never change."
  • Very diminished self-esteem; expression of chronic feelings of guilt, worthlessness.
  • Comments about suicidal thoughts, even if indirect: "I don't ever want to wake up again." "Everyone would be better off if I just died."
  • Talking about "not being around" or about death: "What's the difference? I won't be here anymore for finals."
  • High levels of anger, aggression, or, alternatively, flattening of emotional expression, profound indifference.
  • Reckless, risky, or impulsive behavior.
  • Thinking that is not grounded in reality; delusional expressions/remarks.

These behavioral indicators are of greatest concern when several are present or when there is a history of suicide attempts, increasing social isolation, access to lethal means, or recent increases in significant life stressors, such as the death of a loved one, romantic breakup, financial strain, academic problems, or serious health or family problems. 

You can learn much more from the JED Foundation and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.