The First R: Recognizing Signs of Distress

This section introduces the Three Rs Framework – recognize, respond, refer – as a way to support students who may be in distress. This section focuses on how to recognize signs of distress, including signs that a student may be considering suicide.

These slides are available for use with this section of the presentation. For information about downloading presentation slides, see Preparing for the Session.

Recognize

The Three Rs Framework – recognize, respond, refer – is an important way that we can support students. The first R is recognize. How do we recognize when someone is distressed and struggling? Thinking about your students and any times you might have been concerned about them, what are some signs you have noticed that they may be experiencing distress, which we define as more than predictable day-to-day stress? What did you notice? (Make the key point: the main sign is a change in a student’s presentation.)

Students often give us clues about the state of their wellness through either their words, body language, or actions. What are some signs of distress that you’ve noticed in students?

Either share the slide “Recognizing Signs of Distress” or write “Academic, Behavioural, Physical, Emotional” on the board and invite participants to share signs of distress that they’ve noticed in students. (For online sessions, ask participants to write their responses in chat.) You could also refer back to the exercise done earlier, where participants identified different behaviour changes they might see when there is an imbalance in the wheel.

Some possible signs that a student is not doing well include:

Academic signs

  • Significant decline in the quality or quantity of classroom/research work
  • Change in attendance
  • Repeated lateness, missed appointments or deadlines
  • Missed assignments or exams

Emotional signs

  • Exaggerated emotional response (e.g., intense anger, sobbing, persistent worry)
  • Overly confident and enthusiastic
  • Absence of emotion – appearing flat, disengaged
  • Lack of motivation or interest

Physical signs

  • Falling asleep in class
  • Noticeable decline in hygiene or looking unkempt
  • Significant change in energy level
  • Appearing drunk or high
  • Visible bruises, cuts, or injuries

Behavioural signs

  • Describing difficult circumstances or experiences (e.g., loss, conflict, trauma, assault)
  • Ranting emails
  • Disregard of rules or authority
  • Peer reports of concerns about, or discomfort with, a student

Signs that a Student Might Be Thinking About Suicide

Now let’s shift to talk a little more about suicide, which may be a concern for anyone trying to support students who are in crisis. A student could give warning signs such as:

  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or ending their life.
  • Misusing substances, like drugs, alcohol, and inhalants, or showing signs of other harmful behaviours like excessive gambling or self-harming.
  • Saying things like, “I don’t see any point,” or “They’d be better off without me.”
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities.
  • Missing classes and avoiding help.
  • Showing changes in feelings, appearance, or behaviour that are outside their norm.

For more information on signs that a person is considering suicide, see the IS PATH WARM tool, which is based on research from the American Association of Suicidology and used worldwide. It’s available on the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website. This tool helps you think about some of the signs that a student could show if they are thinking about suicide and need help. It is important to remember that faculty and staff are not in a position to diagnose and are not expected to act as a counsellor, but if they are aware of the signs, they can help refer the student so they get the help they need.

You now have a sense of some signs of distress that you may see in students, and you have all seen and experienced some of these before. This is the first step: Recognizing.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from Capacity to Connect: Supporting Students from Distress to Suicide. © Vancouver Island University. Added new paragraph to introduce the Three Rs Framework and “Signs that a Student Might Be Thinking About Suicide.” Adapted by Barbara Johnston. CC BY 4.0 license.

License

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Capacity to Connect: Supporting Students’ Mental Health and Wellness by Gemma Armstrong; Michelle Daoust; Ycha Gil; Albert Seinen; Faye Shedletzky; Jewell Gillies; Barbara Johnston; and Liz Warwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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