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What to Notice

Gannett Health Services
110 Ho Plaza
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-3101

Tel: 607 255-5155
Fax: 607 255-0269
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The following indicators can all be important signs of distress. You may notice a student exhibiting one or more of the academic, physical, or emotional signs and decide that something is clearly wrong. Or you may have a "gut-level feeling" that something is amiss. If the latter is the case, don't dismiss your feelings or feel that you need to wait for tangible "proof" that a problem exists. A simple check-in with the student may help you get a better sense of his/her situation.

Academic signs

  • Deterioration in quality/quantity of work 
  • A negative change in classroom or research performance (e.g., drop in grades) 
  • Missed assignments or exams 
  • Repeated absences from class or from research lab 
  • Disorganized or erratic performance 
  • Decline in enthusiasm in class (e.g., no longer choosing a seat in the front of the room)
  • Student sends frequent, lengthy, “ranting” or threatening types of emails to professor/TA
  • Continual seeking of special provisions (e.g., late papers, extensions, postponed exams, and projects)

Academic Integrity Violation: While a student's distress or mental anguish should not serve as an excuse for an academic integrity violation, the existence of an academic integrity violation may certainly signal a high level of personal distress.

Physical signs

  • Falling asleep in class or other inopportune times 
  • A dramatic change in energy level (either direction) 
  • Worrisome changes in hygiene or personal appearance 
  • Significant changes in weight 
  • Frequent state of alcohol intoxication (i.e., bleary-eyed, hung-over, smelling of alcohol)
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises or burns on student

Emotional signs

  • Inappropriate emotional outbursts (unprovoked anger or hostility, sobbing)
  • Exaggerated personality traits; more withdrawn or more animated than usual
  • Expressions of hopelessness, fear or worthlessness; themes of suicide, death and dying in papers/projects 
  • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or other difficulties 
  • Peer concern about a fellow student (in class, lab, residence hall, club)

It's possible that any one of these signs, in and of itself, may simply mean that a student is having an “off” day. Consider consulting with a colleague, supervisor, associate dean, or other trusted member of the Cornell community to share your observations, and discuss options for response

Please note, any one serious sign (e.g., a student writes a paper expressing hopelessness and/or thoughts of suicide) or a cluster of smaller signs (e.g., emotional outbursts, repeated absence, a noticeable cut on the arm) necessitates an intervention.


See Also

Quick Guide to Action

Print the Quick Guide to Action (pdf)


"Cornell formalizes how it assesses disturbing behavior" (Cornell Chronicle, 09.22.09). Read article