Recognising and Managing Stress

At one time or another, everyone feels upset or experiences a low mood. There are, however, some instances when distressing personal experiences can be detrimental to an individual’s ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis.

As a staff member, you may be among the first to notice when a student is having trouble coping with the many stressors in his or her life. Often, recognition that there is a problem and a small amount of support can make all the difference. These distressing experiences can occur at any time and may often add to the existing stresses of academic life. As a result, individuals experiencing distress may risk negative academic, personal, or social consequences.

By recognising the signs of distress in students, and responding appropriately, you can play a vital role in helping the student find the assistance and support they need. The following may help to identify when a student is in distress, how to respond to a student in distress, and suggests ways to help the student receive assistance and support at CAPS.

Common signs of distress


  • Excessive absences or loss of motivation
  • Consistent failure to turn in work or complete tasks to deadlines
  • Marked changes in concentration
  • Neglect of personal responsibilities
  • Noticeable decline in quality of work or writing and class participation
  • Poor performance and preparation
  • Repeated requests for special consideration/subject withdrawal
  • Avoiding participation
  • Excessively anxious when called upon


  • Increased physical health complaints
  • Continual episodes of illness, colds, flu, etc.
  • Perspiring excessively
  • Having breathing difficulties
  • Obvious intense pain
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Complaints of sleep problems
  • Falling asleep in unexpected circumstances

Emotional and Cognitive

  • Sustained low mood for most of the day
  • Being frequently tearful
  • Appearing vague
  • Experiencing repeated high levels of anxiety or panic attacks
  • Panic attacks
  • Irritability
  • Unpredictable outbursts of anger
  • Increased agitation
  • Displaying speech patterns that seem pressured, racing or confused
  • Frequent negative statements about self and the future


  • Increased procrastination and avoidance of tasks
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Poor self-care and neglected personal hygiene
  • Being excessively demanding of others
  • Increase in impulsive behaviour
  • Self harm
  • Increase in alcohol or drug misuse
  • Talk of suicide (e.g., "I won’t be around to take that exam anyway." or "I’m not worried about getting a job, I won’t need one.")
  • Violent acts towards self and/or others
  • Extreme dependency on faculty or staff, including spending much time visiting during office hours or other times

Common causes of distress

Illustration of common causes of distress

What you can do

Academic or teaching staff can often be among the first to notice when a student is experiencing distress. Students may openly disclose problems to staff, or staff may recognise signs of distress. Staff can play a vital and proactive role in helping students by responding with interest and concern, and providing them with access to support and assistance through CAPS.

If a student is having difficulty, but is able to cope, you may choose to limit your interaction to the academic issue. If you judge the situation to be more urgent, you may decide to refer the student to other support services on campus.

Critical event action steps

A critical event may involve a student affected by acute mental health and/or acute distress with danger of harm or harm to others. There are established procedures for dealing with emergencies as outline by the Emergency Management Site Plan coordinated by Campus Security.

The first point of contact in a critical incident is UNSW Campus Security (Campus Security Emergency number 9385 6666 or free call 1800 626 003).

In Case of Emergency (Danger of Harm) Mental Health/ Acute Distress

  • Get back up support. Let someone else know your concerns. Avoid leaving the distressed person alone – ask a colleague to stay with them even if you only have to leave for a small period of time.
  • Try to make the person in distress safe. If possible keep them away from windows, staircases, balconies, dangerous objects or chemicals.
  • Contact Security – where possible get someone else to make the call. This leaves you free to focus on the needs of the person who needs assistance.

The Security team will co-ordinate an appropriate response to the situation. They will also be able to provide back-up support to keep everyone as safe as possible.

In Case of Medical Emergency

  • Get backup support. Get someone else to call Security's Direct Emergency Number 9385 6666 or freecall 1800 626 003
  • Request an immediate call for medical assistance or an ambulance
  • Use appropriate first aid strategies. Check to see if there is a need for specific first aid (eg clearing of airways)

Tips for responding to distressed students

Students with signs of depression

Low mood is part of a natural emotional and physical response to life’s ups and downs. Given the busy and demanding life of a university student, it is expected that many students will go through periods of reactive or situational depression during their university career.

Major depression, however, is not just a passing mood. People with depression may not be able to “pull themselves together” and this can often interfere with their ability to function normally. Without treatment or support, major depression can last for weeks, months or years.

What to Look Out For

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyable
  • Appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and weight gain
  • Decrease in energy and fatigue
  • Thoughts of/mention of death or suicide
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Inconsistent class attendance
  • Decline in personal hygiene
  • Students experiencing depression often respond well to small amount of attention for a short of period of time.

Helpful to:

  • Let the student know you’re aware that they are feeling and you would like to help
  • Encourage the student to discuss how they are feeling
  • Offer options to further investigate/manage the symptoms of depression
  • Encourage them to seek help, suggest CAPS or that they get in touch with their doctor
  • Report any remarks about suicide to a CAPS counsellor and alert the crisis team

Not Helpful to:

  • Minimise the student’s feelings (e.g. “It will be better tomorrow”)
  • Bombard the student with quick fix solutions
  • Be afraid to ask whether the student is suicidal if you think that they may be. Evidence has shown that asking about suicide will not increase the risk of suicide

Students with signs of anxiety

While everyone can feel anxious from time to time, some people experience these feelings so strongly and often that it can affect their day-to-day lives. For some students, the cause of their anxiety is clear, however others may find it difficult to determine the exact cause of their anxiety. Often, anxiety among students is a result of academic competition, or fear of inadequacy. It can also stem from problematic relationships.

What to Look Out For

Severe anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as:

  • Signs of chest pains or discomfort
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating, trembling, or shaking
  • Restlessness

Helpful to:

  • Stay calm and talk slowly - ask them if they have had symptoms like this before
  • Let them know they are not being judged
  • Let them discuss their feelings and thoughts
  • Provide reassurance
  • Be clear and directive
  • Provide a safe and quiet environment

Not helpful to:

  • Pressure them to relax or “calm down”
  • Minimize the perceived threat to which the student is reacting
  • Take responsibility over their emotional state
  • Overwhelm them with ways to fix their condition
  • Assume the problem will just go away
  • Pressure them to manage their feelings with alcohol or drugs

Students with signs of suicidal thoughts

It is not uncommon for students to engage in some degree of suicidal thinking. As a staff member of UNSW, you may be in contact with students who have expressed suicidal thoughts to you, either directly in person, or indirectly through submitted papers. It is important that these comments or allusions are not overlooked, as the student may be trying to reach out to you.

What to Look Out For

A combination of:

  • Decreased concentration
  • Poor self care
  • Crying spells
  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Expressions of hopelessness about the future
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Substance abuse
  • Apathy
  • Low self esteem and giving away possessions

Along with verbal clues, or messages found in emails, blogs and Facebook, such as:

  • “I’m going to kill myself”
  • “I wish I was dead”
  • “I just can’t go on any longer”
  • “Nobody needs me anymore”
  • “You won’t be seeing me around anymore”
  • “Everyone would be better off without me”

Helpful to:

  • Talk about suicide openly and directly. Don't be afraid to ask about suicidal thoughts
  • Emphasise the temporary nature of the person’s problems (Suicide as a permanent resolution to a temporary problem)
  • Take charge and call/walk student to CAPS or call the Mental Health Crisis team (9366 8611)
  • Sound calm and understanding
  • Be confident and caring

Not helpful to:

  • Sound shocked by what the student is telling you
  • Emphasise how much shock and embarrassment the suicide will bring to the persons friends and family
  • Ignore comments such as “the world would be better off without me”
  • Engage in philosophical debate on the moral aspects of suicide

Making a Referral

Steps to consider when making a referral

When you have decided that a student might benefit from counselling support, explain to the student that UNSW has a professional counselling service which staffed by psychologists and suggest that this may be a useful option. This service is available to all students free of charge.

Step 1. Suggest Support Options

Make it clear that you are recommending counselling because it represents your best judgement based on your observations of the student. Be specific regarding the signs of distress that have raised your concerns, and avoid attributing anything negative to the individual's character.

The following points may encourage a student to seek help:

  • Inform the student that the services are free and confidential
  • Provide students with a brochure, phone number, or CAPS website address
  • Reassure the student that seeking help from a counsellor is not a sign of weakness or failure. Many other students seek assistance from counsellors.

Step 2. Making an Appointment

If the student has agreed that counselling might be useful, several steps can be taken depending on the urgency of the situation:

  • You may offer the student information on how to contact CAPS, or assist them with making an appointment over the phone.
  • If the matter is urgent, indicate this when contacting CAPS so that a counsellor can be made available
  • Be ready to provide some background on your specific concerns to assist with the referral process
  • If deemed appropriate, or necessary, accompany the student to CAPS yourself

It is also beneficial to let the student know that you will talk with them again, and that you are interested in their well-being.

Step 3. If a Student Declines Support Option

Not all students will agree with your suggestion to seek counselling support, and it is important that the option to accept or refuse counselling must be left open. At the end of the day, the decision to seek help rests with the student. If the student is reluctant for any reason, simply express your acceptance of those feelings so that your relationship with the student is not jeopardised. Give the student room to consider alternatives by suggesting that maybe you can talk after the student has had some time to think it over.

If the matter is serious, and or need of urgent attention, contact CAPS on 9385 5418 and ask to speak to a counsellor.