Identifying and responding to students in distress

Emergency, after hours, and community contacts

Situations requiring immediate referral/reporting

  • Imminent thoughts of suicide/suicidal activity
  • Threats and disruptive behaviour
  • Drug and alcohol abuse and misuse

Other situations requiring attention

  • Assault and/or harassment
  • Chronic mental health concerns
  • Difficulty in communicating and/or distortions of reality
  • Learning and academic challenges

Signs of distress

  • Changes in academic performance (deterioration in quality of work, frequently missed assignments and classes, excessive procrastination, avoidance of participation)
  • Listlessness or falling asleep in class
  • Unusual behaviour (unexplained crying, laughing to self, rapid speech, disorganized thinking, suspiciousness)
  • High levels of irritability
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Physical symptoms (nausea, headaches, problems with eating, excessive or disrupted sleeping)
  • Changes in hygiene or dress
  • Changes in relationships or social behaviour (withdrawal, isolation or dependency)
  • Difficulty concentrating or communicating
  • Self-harm (e.g. cutting)

What to do and say


  • It is OK to ask and express concern
  •  Be specific about the behaviour that worries you

Example: "I’ve noticed you’ve been absent from class lately and I’m concerned about you."


  • Listen non-judgmentally, having an open world view
  • Meet in a private location, be patient, and give your undivided attention

Example: "Is there anything I can do to help you?"


  • Acknowledge their thoughts and feelings in a compassionate way
  • Offer hope and reassure them you are concerned and want to help

Example: "It sounds like you're feeling out of place."


  • Provide student with resources
  • Offer to make the call with the student

Example: "If you’d like, I can call and book the appointment for you while you are here with me."

Making a good referral

  • Point out that help is available and seeking help is a sign of strength and courage rather than weakness. Acknowledge that seeking help can be scary.
  • Research resources on this site, contact Counselling Services for guidance at 364-2163 or
  • If the student appears reluctant, you can help by:
    • Offering to contact the resource on their behalf while they are in your office
    • Offering to sit with the student while they make the initial contact themselves
    • Accompanying the student to the appointment if appropriate and you feel comfortable
  • Provide the student with take-away materials and information (contact numbers, locations, etc.)
  • Offer to follow-up with the student, but don’t insist on knowing what the student has done.

If a student says “No” to a referral

  • Respect their decision. Accepting or refusing assistance must be left up to the student, except in emergencies, when life is in danger. In those circumstances, call 911.
  • Don’t force the issue or trick them into going.
  • Try and leave the door open for later reconsideration. Example: "I respect your decision. I hope you will keep these options in mind. My door is always open."