Understanding and Responding to Individuals in Distress

Understanding individuals in distress

At one time or another everyone feels upset or distressed. However, there are three levels of concern that when present over time suggest that these problems may be outside the norm. It is important to consider each type of behavior in context for the individual in question.


When an individual is emotionally troubled (e.g., depressed, manic, unstable), you may observe the following behaviors:

  • Changes in academic performance in the classroom
  • Scores on exams significantly drop
  • Changes in pattern of interaction
  • Changes in physical appearance
  • Problems concentrating, remembering things or making decisions


In an individual exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior, you may observe the following:

  • Repeating requests for special consideration
  • New or regularly occurring behavior which may interfere with class management or be disruptive to other individual or college employees
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional responses (venting, screaming, swearing)
  • Persistent sadness or unexplained crying
  • High levels of irritability or inappropriate excitement
  • Vague threats to self or others; demanding, verbally abusive or intimidating behavior
  • Substance misuse and/or abuse


When an individual is deficient in skills that regulate emotion, cognition, self, behavior and relationships, you may observe the following:

  • Statements related to death or dying or feelings of hopelessness
  • Direct threats of harm to self or others
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Display of a weapon
  • Inability to communicate easily
  • Irrational conversation or speech that seems disconnected
  • Loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that are not there, beliefs or actions at odds with reality)
  • Suspiciousness, irrational feelings of persecution or paranoia
  • Sends threatening correspondence

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Responding to individuals in distress

Responses to distressed and disturbed behaviors:

  • Talk to the person in private.
  • Consult with a professional counselor.
  • Listen to the individual and express your concern in a non-judgmental way.
  • Know your own limits. Don’t get more involved in the person’s life than is comfortable or appropriate for you (e.g., determine the length of the conversation, when and where it will take place and what resources you can use).
  • Ask if the person is considering suicide. (See responding to suicidal concerns.)
  • Identify options for the person - for example, a referral to the college counseling center.
  • Make a report to the CARE Team.

Responses to dysregulation:

  • If the crisis is life-threatening or if the individual’s behavior is extreme, call 911 from a college extension or 972-860-4290 from a cell phone and convey to the dispatcher that this is a life-threatening situation and you need immediate assistance.
    • If others are present, ask them to step away.
    • Be calm, clear and observant.
    • After the situation has been resolved, please notify the {#loc:code#} CARE Team by submitting a referral form so that a follow-up can be initiated.
  • If you feel threatened or intimidated, call 911 from a college extension or 972-860-4290 from a cell phone and convey to the dispatcher that you need help immediately. Determine if you feel safe. If you feel unsafe, leave the area. Remain in an open area, preferably with an exit door near you. And consider the following:
    • Wait for assistance.
    • Keep a safe distance and don’t move toward the person.
    • Do not attempt an intervention. Intervening at this point may trigger physical acting out behavior and jeopardize your safety and the safety of others around you.
    • Do not get in a power struggle, make false promises, threaten or use jargon.
    • Remain calm, enforce limits, listen, be aware of nonverbal behavior and be consistent.
    • After the situation has been resolved, please notify the {#loc:code#} CARE Team by submitting a referral form so that a follow-up can be initiated
  • Take care of yourself: Situations such as these can have an impact on you. If you would like to talk to a mental health professional about what happened, contact Human Resources to get connected to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

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