Photo of a student in distress sitting alone outside in cold weather.

While we all want our students to have a positive college experience, many students may find themselves facing circumstances they weren’t expecting. Major life events like hospitalization, mental health concerns, loss of a loved one and relationship troubles can happen unexpectedly and throw students off course.

Family members are often in a position to identify when their student is in distress and may be the first point of contact for advice or support. If you are concerned about your student, here are a few things you can do to support them.

#1 Look for signs of distress

The first step in supporting a student who may be struggling is to understand and identify potential signs of distress. Some common signs to be aware of are listed below. Keep in mind that this list is not all-inclusive and students may not always present themselves in these ways. Trust your instincts.

Behavioral changes

  • Significant changes in academic performance, poor grades, conduct issues at school
  • Unusual or increased spending, financial issues
  • Strange or bizarre behavior indicating loss of contact with reality
  • Rapid speech or manic behavior
  • Depressed or lethargic mood or functioning 
  • Verbal abuse like taunting, badgering or intimidation

Physical changes

  • Significant weight changes, illnesses or injuries
  • Marked changes in physical appearance like poor grooming or hygiene or sudden changes in weight
  • Observable signs of injury like facial bruising/cuts or self-harm
  • Significant illnesses or injuries
  • Visibly intoxicated or smelling of alcohol or marijuana, increased or unusual substance use

Emotional & personality changes

  • Your student feels like a “different kid” when they come home
  • Isolation, major mood swings, bizarre or out of control behavior
  • Self-disclosure of personal distress like relationship problems, financial difficulties, assault, discrimination or legal difficulties
  • Unusual or disproportionate emotional response to events
  • Expression of concern about your student from friends, roommates, instructors or other family members

Safety risk

  • Verbal, written or implied references to suicide, homicide, assault or self-harm behavior
  • Unprovoked anger or hostility
  • Physical violence like shoving, grabbing, assaulting or use of a weapon
  • Stalking or harassing (these behaviors may be done toward your student or your student may be participating in these activities)
  • Communicating threats or disturbing comments in person or via email, text or phone call

#2 Talk to your student about your concerns

Let your student know that you’ve noticed changes and that you’re here to help. Acknowledging their distress, expressing your concerns and offering to explore resources with them can have a positive impact on your relationship and may increase the likelihood that your student seeks support. Here are a few things to keep in mind when approaching your student.

Find a good time to talk

Initiating an important conversation with your student can be difficult. You can set yourself and your student up for success by choosing a quiet space to talk, finding a time that works for both of you, explaining why you want to have this conversation and sharing what you hope will come of it.

Use “I” statements to express your concerns

When talking with your student about your concerns, it’s important to describe what you’ve noticed and let them know that you care about them. Using “I” statements can help you share this information with your student in an effective way. Here are some examples:

  • “I’ve noticed that you’ve been drinking/smoking more than you used to, and I wanted to check in to see how you’re doing.”
  • “I’ve noticed that you aren’t spending as much time with your friends, and I wanted to make sure you’re doing okay.”
  • “I’ve noticed that you’ve lost significant weight since I last saw you, and I am worried about you.”

Ask open-ended questions

Try to avoid yes or no questions that can be easily answered or dismissed. Instead, focus on asking open-ended questions that allow your student to express themselves and provide details that can help you evaluate the situation. For instance, you can ask things like:

  • Can you tell me a little bit about how the fall semester went for you?
  • What are some of the things you are currently struggling with?
  • It seems like things at school may not be going as well as you expected. What do you think might be going on?

As you ask these questions, try to listen to your student’s response and ask clarifying questions if needed. It’s also important to listen, acknowledge and validate your student’s experience without offering judgment or advice.

Avoid overpromising

When we have difficult or uncomfortable conversations, it can be easy to overpromise how things will turn out or provide general answers to move the conversation along. However, it’s important to avoid saying things like “everything will be alright” and “I know exactly how you feel.”

Instead, try to focus on letting your student know that you appreciate their willingness to talk to you about issues they’re facing. This is also an opportunity for you to reiterate how much you care for them. For instance, you may say something like, “I’m sorry to hear that. I want you to know that I am here for you and want to help you as much as I can.”

#3 Make a referral

There are three ways to refer a student to SSCM, including:

Student Support & Case Management (SSCM) is available to provide individualized support to CU Boulder students. SSCM case managers connect students with campus partners, community resources and support systems, while also building a trusting relationship and coaching them toward self-advocacy.

It’s okay to be unsure if your student needs help. The severity of a student’s distress may be unclear, or you may be concerned about your student and don’t know how to move forward. Even if your student does not need immediate assistance, they still may be experiencing academic or personal issues and could use support.

#4 Explore additional resources with your student

Referring your student to SSCM is a great first step, especially if you don’t know what your student may need in terms of support. Here are a few additional resources that are worth exploring with your student to see what they may benefit from the most.

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS)

CAPS is the primary mental health service on campus. They provide short-term counseling, community referrals, consultations, workshops, group therapy and more. CAPS is also available to provide insight and direction for family members or loved ones who want to support their student.

 Confidential resource

*Some services require students to be present in Colorado.

Office of Victim Assistance (OVA)

There may be times when your student wants to speak confidentially or hypothetically about sexual misconduct, intimate partner abuse, stalking, discrimination or harassment. OVA is a free and confidential resource that supports students through traumatic or life-changing events through short-term counseling, advocacy and more.

 Confidential resource

*Some services require students to be present in Colorado.

AcademicLiveCare (ALC)

AcademicLiveCare is a free telehealth platform that allows students to schedule medical and mental health appointments virtually. Your student can use this program to see board-certified healthcare professionals from their home or anywhere they go. All they need is a smartphone, computer, tablet or other mobile device.

AcademicLiveCare can be a great option for:

  • Anxiety, depression or stress
  • Therapy and counseling
  • General wellness
  • Psychiatric medication management

Collegiate Recovery Community (CUCRC)

The CUCRC provides community, support and connection for students in recovery or seeking recovery from a wide range of behaviors. Their mission is to help develop peer-to-peer connections, support resiliency and contribute to their overall well-being through a welcoming and supportive community.  

Student Conduct & Conflict Resolution (SCCR)

SCCR provides resources and support for students who are currently working through conduct issues or need support navigating conflicts with roommates, friends, family, romantic partners and instructors.