Students in Distress

Graduate Assistants sometimes encounter undergraduate students who are distressed. UWM’s policy SAAP 1-5 on Behavior Cases Impeding Learning Process addresses the shared responsibility of instructors and students for a positive educational environment.

Distressed behavior involves issues that can cause barriers to learning, such as strained relationships, increased anxiety, alcohol or drug problems, financial difficulties, depression, or difficulty concentrating. These may be mental health issues or the results of stressful events that diminish academic performance.

When a Graduate Assistant is concerned for a distressed student’s wellbeing, they should reach out to the student privately to find out if the student needs support or assistance. Sometimes both faculty instructors and Graduate Assistants are reluctant to engage distressed students because they do not want to say the wrong thing. However, for many students, simply knowing someone cares can make all the difference. An ability to be empathetic and express concern may be a critical factor in helping a student get help or resolve their problems.

Student Health and Wellness Center provides a useful guide for all instructors, including Graduate Assistants, Assisting the Emotionally Distressed Student: A Guide for Faculty and Staff.

Tips for addressing distressed behavior from SAAP 1-5 include:

  • Talk to the student, if possible after class or in an office.
  • Genuinely listen.
  • Acknowledge the student’s concerns and avoid judgment.
  • If the behavior is approaching disruption, set limits and expectations and be firm.
  • If worried about suicide, ask the student direct questions to assess their intentions, such as, “Are you thinking about suicide?” “What have you thought about doing?” and “What resources/friends/organizations have you utilized for support?”

Graduate Assistants may tell students that they will respect the students’ privacy; however, assistants should not promise confidentiality, because threats to self and others, sexual violence, and child abuse must be reported. See the Mandated Reporting section of this Handbook.

A student may need to be referred for counseling, medical help, or academic assistance. Graduate Assistants can seek consultation to help determine the best approach for assisting a student by contacting the Student Health and Wellness Center at 414-229-4716 or reviewing the resources on their website:

Graduate Assistants should also notify the Dean of Students Office of concerns about distressed students. Instructors can use the Report It! form or send an email to

Some examples of behavioral concerns Graduate Assistants may want to report:

  • significant change in mood
  • being continually confused, irritated, or depressed
  • noticeable change in quality of work
  • changes in appearance or hygiene
  • inappropriate outburst
  • persistent unwanted contact
  • inappropriate use of violent themes/subjects
  • bizarre verbal or written statements
  • self-report of mental health issues or crime victimization (e.g., domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking)
  • suspected or reported alcohol or drug abuse
  • thoughts of violence toward self or others
  • unusual patterns of coming late to class or leaving early
  • difficulty due to illness or death in the family

In order to determine the extent of the problem, the Dean of Students Office may consult with other faculty or staff involved with the student. Consultations may also involve other university personnel (e.g., Student Health and Wellness Center staff, academic adviser, University Housing, etc.). Solutions such as counseling referral and academic changes (e.g., dropping the class or withdrawal from school) will be explored.