Signs of Distress

At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. It is important to remember that just because a student appears to be experiencing one of the signs below it does not necessarily mean that he or she is in significant distress. However, if a student's distress appears to be severe, or you notice one or more of these signs over a prolonged period of time, then it may be necessary to intervene. If you have doubts or concerns about the seriousness of your student's problems, please consult with one of the staff members at the Counseling Center.

Marked Changes in Academic Performance or Behavior

  • Poor performance and preparation.
  • Excessive absences or tardiness.
  • Unusual or changed pattern of interaction.
  • Disruptive behavior.

References to Suicide, Homicide or Death

  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.
  • Talk of death/dying or suicide, either directly or indirectly (e.g., "It doesn't matter, I won't be around for the final exam.")
  • Isolation from friends and/or family.
  • Homicidal or suicidal threats, which may occur in verbal or written statements.

Unusual Behavior or Appearance

  • Depressed or lethargic mood.
  • Hyperactivity or very rapid speech.
  • Swollen or red eyes.
  • Significant change in personal hygiene or dress.
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain.
  • Strange or bizarre behavior indicating loss of contact w/ reality.
  • Sleeping more than usual or less than usual.
  • Anxiety, nervousness, panic attacks.
  • Problems with roommates, friends, family.
  • Aggressiveness, acting out, emotional outbursts.

What Can You Do?

Remember to:

TALK to your student in private when both of you have the time and are not rushed or preoccupied.

LISTEN to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way. Communicate understanding.

GIVE hope. It is important to help them realize there are options, and that things will not always seem hopeless. Suggest resources: friends, family, clergy, counselors.

AVOID judging, evaluating, and criticizing even if your student asks your opinion. Such behavior may push the student away from you and from the help he or she needs. It is important to respect your student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.

REFER: A referral for counseling may be made when your student's difficulties appear to go beyond your ability to help. In making a referral it is important to point out that: 1) help is available and 2) seeking such help is a sign of strength and courage rather than a sign of weakness or failure. If you can, prepare the student for what they might expect if they follow your suggestion. Tell them what you know about the referral person or service. Specify options they can consider. This can include using the Counseling Services. If the student is not ready to use professional counseling, some other sources of help may be useful (physicians, community support groups, Residence Life ADs, chaplain, relatives, etc.).

FOLLOW-UP with your student to solidify their resolve to obtain appropriate help and to demonstrate your commitment to assist them in this process. Check later with your student to see that the referral appointment was kept and to hear how it went. Provide support while your student takes further appropriate action or pursues another referral if needed.

CONSULT with a Counseling Center staff member (895-4292), the Dean of Students (895-4234), or your student’s Residence Life Assistant Director (895-4113) when you have questions or concerns about your student, or want to know about resources on and off campus.

What Happens to a Student at the Counseling Center?

Students make their own appointments. You can assist this process by providing the student with the Counseling Center phone number (319-895-4292). Students can email the Counseling Center to request an appointment (, however email has delays, is not confidential, and is not checked outside of office hours, so the most timely and confidential option is telephone. Office hours are between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. A student can generally obtain an appointment within a week or so, and there may be a longer wait if demands for services are high.

For the first visit with a counselor, the student completes information forms before their appointment (these may be waived temporarily in an emergency). During the initial meeting, the counselor begins an assessment of the student's needs and the ways in which the Counseling Center might be able to help. If the student and the counselor agree that further counseling is appropriate, the student may be offered short-term individual counseling on campus and/or a Mental Health Wellness Workshop. Some students are referred to other campus service departments or to community resources for specialized or continued counseling. Others may leave the initial meeting feeling able to handle their problems on their own. Students can contact the Center if additional services would be useful.

On-campus counseling services are free and are confidential by law. What that means for you, as a parent, is that counselors cannot say whether or not they have met with your student. You may share any concerns or information with a counselor, but unless the counselor has written permission from a student he or she cannot provide specific information in return. However, a counselor can listen to your concerns and discuss options and/or resources with you. And remember, talking directly to your student is often the best way to understand what is going on in their life, and to express your concern and care for them.

Portions of this information have been adapted from The George Washington University’s Counseling Center.

Additional Web Resources

  • College Parents of America: From the web page: ”[College Parents of America is] the nation’s oldest and only membership organization comprised of current and future college parents.”
  • PFLAG (Formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays): provides peer support, information, and advocacy about issues facing LGBTQ individuals.
  • Pandora's Project: a good site for family and friends of sexual abuse and rape survivors. Includes tips on how you can help your loved one as well as some useful resources.
  • Cornell College: Parents' Gateway, with links to information about every aspect of Cornell, from academics, to extracurricular activities, to student services.
  • The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress has a resource titled "Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting: Tips for Parents and Professionals", with suggestions for talking with children and adolescents after the Newtown, CT, elementary school shooting.