Responding to Students in Distress

1. Observe

The first important step in assessing distressed students is to be familiar with the symptoms of distress and attend to their occurrence. An attentive observer will pay close attention to direct communications as well as implied or hidden feelings.

2. It's OK to ask

You may be the first contact for a student in distress and in a position to ask a few questions. Provided you are coming from a place of concern, you are likely to get a good response. Remember, it is better to be embarrased about the asking than be regretful about not having asked.

3. Pick a good place and time to have the conversation

If you are going to have a conversation, choose to do so when the barriers to opening up are fewest. Seek a quiet, private moment to talk to the student. If the student appears very agitated or if there is a safety concern, it is best to ask a colleague to be present when you meet with the student.

4. Say what you see

Talk to the student about what you have seen and express concern ("I've noticed that you seem to be less interested in class these days; is everything ok").Take a calm and matter-of-fact approach. Ask students directly if they are drunk, confused, or if they have thoughts of harming themselves.

You need not be afraid to ask these questions. You will not be "putting ideas in their heads" by doing so. Most distressed students are relieved to know that someone has noticed and cares.

5. Be prepared for the possibility of denial or difficulty

Students (like the rest of us) are not always ready to talk about their concerns. If this happens, it means "not now." Respect that.

6. Trust your instincts

Even if a student denies that there is a difficulty, keep on trusting yourself. You might say, "OK, please know that I am concerned about the way you seem these days." Let them know you are concerned and that you want to be of support.

While it is true that some students appear distressed in order to get attention or relief from responsibility, only a thorough assessment can determine if this is the case. Attention-seekers can have serious problems and be in danger, too.

7. Keep the door open

If at all possible, the student should leave the interaction feeling it is safe to approach you again in the future.

8. Remember your resources

If you are uncomfortable or uncertain after your interaction with a student, remember there are resources on campus that you can call on. In situations like these, please call the Student Counselling Centre (4616) and ask to speak to a therapist for consultation.

9. Know your limits

You will be able to assist many distressed students on your own by simply listening and referring them for further help. Some students will, however, need much more than you can offer.

Only go as far as your expertise, training, and resources allow. If you are uncertain about you ability to help a student, it is best to be honest about it.