skip navigation

Durham Tech Logo

Understanding Emotional Upset1
Emotional Distress (Upset)  is a physical and psychological reaction to issues and events occurring in a person’s environment.  Common stress triggers for college students can include concerns about achieving goals, changes in one’s environment, life challenges, and periods of significant transition.

As a faculty or staff member interacting daily with students, you are in an excellent position to recognize behavior changes that characterize an emotionally upset student. You may observe that at certain times of the year, particularly during midterms, finals, and holidays, students may experience increased anxiety.

A student’s behavior, especially if it is inconsistent with your previous observations, could well mean an attempt to draw attention to his/her problems. .  .“a cry for help.”

Common Causes of Emotional Upset

Relationship problems/break-ups
Family problems
Grief and loss
Eating disorders
Sexual or physical abuse or assault
Lack of money

Sexual or racial identity confusion
Drug/alcohol abuse
Career indecision
Low self-esteem
Academic pressure or failure
Serious illness or injury
Difficulty adjusting to college life
Child care issues


Tips for Recognizing Emotionally Upset Students
College students typically live with a great deal of stress (i.e. academic, social, family, work, financial) during their educational experiences. While most College students typically live with a great deal of stress (i.e. academic, social, family, work, financial) during their educational experiences. While most students cope successfully, for some the pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable.  

At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. However, there are three levels of student upset which, may mean that the problems are more than the "normal" ones.  

Level 1 Behaviors — Although not disruptive, these behaviors may indicate that something is wrong and that help may be needed:

  • Serious grade problems or sudden changes in performance
  • Change from good attendance to many absences
  • Big changes in mood, motor activity, or speech
  • Big changes in physical appearance 
  • Falling asleep in class

Level 2 Behaviors — These behaviors may indicate significant upset, or the student may not be able to ask for help directly.  These behaviors may also need to be addressed through the Student Conduct Procedures.

  • Many requests for special consideration
  • New or repeated behavior which pushes the limits and may interfere with class management or be disruptive to others
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response

Level 3 Behaviors — The behaviors below usually show that the student is in crisis and needs emergency care.  For emergency care, contact Campus Security who will call 911.

  • Hostility or aggression
  • Garbled or slurred speech, disconnected thoughts
  • Seeing/hearing things that are not there and beliefs or actions at odds with reality
  • Suicidal thoughts (suicide is currently being considered as an option)
  • Homicidal threats

Responding to Upset
A faculty or staff member is often the first person to recognize when a student is upset and to reach out to that student. Faculty and staff are not expected to provide personal counseling to students or handle security matters.  Rather, faculty and staff play an important role in enforcing the Student Code of Conduct and Student Conduct Procedures and in encouraging students to use campus resources, including Counseling Services.

There is no one correct way to deal with an upset student.  Each person has his/her own style of approaching others and direct ways of helping with problems. It is important to know your personal abilities and limits.

If you decide to try to help an upset student, or if a student approaches you to talk about personal problems, here are some suggestions:

  • Speak directly to the student when you sense that he/she is in academic trouble and/or shows signs of personal upset.
  • Openly acknowledge that you are aware of his/her distress, that you are sincerely concerned, and that you are willing to help explore options.
  • Request to see the student in private.  Briefly acknowledge what you saw and express your concerns directly and honestly. 
  • Listen carefully to what the student is saying and try to see the issue from his/her point of view without agreeing or disagreeing. 
  • Strange and inappropriate behavior should not be ignored.   The student can be informed that such behavior is distracting and inappropriate.  Please refer to Student Conduct Procedures.
  • Your openness to an upset student will allow him/her to respond more effectively to your concerns.  Help the student explore options for action and possible consequences. 
  • Be open about the limits on your ability to help the student.  If the student appears to be in imminent danger of hurting self or others, call Campus Security or 911 immediately.   Do not promise to keep a student’s threats to self or others secret.

Based on “Understanding Emotional Distress,” “Tips for Recognizing Emotionally Distressed Students,” and “Responding to Emotionally Distressed Students” are excerpted from the Best Practices Manual for Counseling Referrals, compiled by The North Carolina Community College System Department of Student Development Services, February 2008.


Counseling Services 919-536-7207, ext. 1413

Durham Technical Community College
1637 Lawson Street
Durham, NC 27703

Copyright ©Durham Technical Community College. All Rights Reserved.
Privacy Policy l Conditions of Use