College students encounter many stressors that can impact their personal and academic life.  Feeling homesick, family conflict, relationship issues, pressure from exams and grades, trying to find a job, and/or feeling alone are just a few common experiences that students go through in college.

This page has information to help you as you address your concerns about a student. You will find information about signs of distress, how to speak with a student in distress, and referring to campus resources. In addition to this page, you may be interested in this additional resource on helping friends who are struggling or our curated list of books on a variety of mental health topics.

Signs of Distress

Although fluctuations in academic performance, mood, stress level, or interpersonal behavior are normal throughout college, it’s important to be aware of signs of excessive distress. Extreme or significant changes that persist or interfere with daily functioning are indicative of excessive distress and may warrant a referral to the Counseling Center. Here are some signs of distress you can keep an eye out for:

  • Excessive absences
  • Uncharacteristically poor work
  • Dropping grades
  • Difficulty concentrating/focusing
  • Difficulty working in teams/groups
  • Increased difficulty completing tasks
  • Panic attacks and increased anxiety around exams or deadlines

Physical Signs:

  • Increased frequency of headaches
  • Recurring colds and minor illness
  • Frequent muscle ache and/or tightness
  • Persistent fatigue

Emotional Signs:

  • Increased generalized frustration, agitation, irritability and/or anger
  • Intense, dramatic, or volatile emotions
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Verbal or written references to distress, including suicidal/homicidal thoughts or plans

Behavioral Signs:

  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Changes in sleep patterns and level of energy (difficult to fall asleep, waking up frequently, feeling lethargic)
  • Inappropriate responses and/or disorganized thoughts
  • Physical harm to self

  • Difficulty getting along with others
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Extreme defensiveness
  • Amplified short-temper

More information about potential warning signs that a friend might be in excessive distress can be found here from The JED Foundation.

How to Respond to a Student in Distress

At Hamilton College, it is our shared responsibility to look out for one another. The Counseling Center is here to support you. We want to give you tools to help students in distress as you may be the first one to notice these signs. 

Dos: Don'ts:
  • Respect the person's space. Share your concern, identify your specific observations, communicate care.
  • Say, "I understand/I feel your pain" or suggest that you know what he/she/they are going through.
  • Support their decisions moving forward.
  • Ask questions that suggest blame, such as, "Why did you let this happen?"
  • Actively listen and given them your complete attention. If you hear hopelessness, despair, any indicator of not wanting to live, recognize those feelings. Try saying something like: “I hear how hopeless you are about the future. It sounds like you feel depleted.” or ask if they are thinking about suicide.
  • Share personal anecdotes or probe/press for information.
  • Inform them of the resources available for support.
  • Consult with the Counseling Center at 315-859-4340 and/or the Student Support Services at 315-859-4020 for assistance.
  • Avoid offering confidentiality to the student as you may need to get help from others.
  • Take care of yourself: Reach out to the Counseling Center for your own well-being.
  • Retaliate, make threats, or share their story with others.


Contact Name

Counseling Center

Office Location
Johnson Center for Health and Wellness

Help us provide an accessible education, offer innovative resources and programs, and foster intellectual exploration.

Site Search