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Recognizing Distressed Students

Red Folder: Helping Students in Distress

The California State University (CSU) system has created a new electronic resource entitled, the Red Folder, to help faculty and staff identify, respond, and refer students in distress. The Red Folder initiative was created through the support of the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA) Student Mental Health Initiative (SMHI), which promotes and applies strategies to strengthen student mental health services across all CSU campuses. The CSU recognizes that students might seek support and counseling from faculty and staff members whom they have fostered a trusting relationship. For this reason, the Office of the Chancellor is providing each campus with tools that will assist its faculty and staff in connecting distressed students with the appropriate campus services.

The Red Folder is an electronic reference guide that contains safety tips and contact information for a wide variety of emergency campus resources to immediately help any student in distress. Also, it provides guidance on responding to incidents in which a student might be self-danger or threat to others. The Red Folder was developed by a systemwide workgroup consisting of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) directors, counselors, student conduct administrators and health educators.

There are three resources associated with the Red Folder that are available to staff and faculty. The first product is a Red Folder icon that will be installed on every employee's computer and in the CSYou intranet site, to quickly access the Red Folder. The second product is a Red Folder in the form of a mobile application, which is currently being developed for each campus. The third and final product is a hard copy of the Red Folder that will be available for distribution to your campus staff and faculty.

We recommend you refer your student for services if the signs below persist:

Change in Academic Performance or Behavior

  • Poor performance and preparation
  • Excessive absences or tardies
  • Repeated requests for special treatment
  • Unusual or changed interaction
  • Avoids participation
  • Dominates discussions
  • Anxious when called upon
  • Disruptive of class
  • Reports roommate or family problems
  • Exaggerated emotional responses
  • Strange behavior showing loss of contact with reality
  • Isolated from friends or family
  • Depressed or lethargic mood
  • Hyperactive or rapid speech

Unusual Appearance

  • Swollen or red eyes
  • Change in hygiene or dress
  • Dramatic change in weight

References to Suicide, Homicide, or Death

*These may be present in verbal or written statements.

  • Statements of helplessness or hopelessness
  • References to suicide
  • Homicidal threats


Tips for Helping Students in Distress

  • Ask to talk to the student in private.
  • Speak directly and honestly to the student.
  • Ask if the student is talking to anyone about the problem (e.g., family or friends). Isolation is rarely useful for those in distress.
  • If you initiate contact, use nonjudgmental terms. For example:
  • Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening way.
  • Show you understand. Repeat back the essence of what the student has told you. Include both content and feeling:
  • Avoid evaluating and criticizing even if the student asks your opinion.
  • Respect the student's value system, even if you disagree with it.
  • Do not ignore strange or inappropriate behavior.
  • Do not discuss concerns with other students.
    • "I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned," rather than "Where have you been lately? You should be more concerned about your grades."
    • "It sounds like you're not accustomed to this much work and you're worried about failing."