Helping a Student in Distress

What does a student in distress look like?

When to be concerned?

  • How are they functioning?
  • Are you concerned about safety?
  • How are others in the community being impacted?

Tips for Recognizing Emotionally Distressed Students:

  • Poor concentration in the classroom
  • Poor relationship with classmates
  • Skipping classes very often
  • Grades are dropping
  • Marked change in physical appearance
  • Marked change in mood or behaviour


More specific:

  • Academically:
    • Repeated absences from class, section, or lab
    • Missed assignments, exams, or appointments
    • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work
    • The written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, or confusion; essays or papers that focus on suicide or death
    • Patterns of perfectionism: Can’t accept themselves if they don’t get an A
  • Behavioral and emotionally:
    • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or loss
    • Angry or hostile outbursts, yelling, or aggressive comments
    • More withdrawn or more animated than usual
    • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; severe anxiety or irritability
    • Lack of response to outreach from staff
  • Physically:
    • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
    • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion
    • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns
    • Disorganized speech, rapid or slurred speech, confusion

Safety Risk Indicators

These signs may indicate a student is an immediate danger to him or herself:

  • Written or verbal statements that mention despair, suicide, or death
  • Severe hopelessness, depression, isolation, and withdrawal
  • Statements to the effect that the student is “going away for a long time”
  • Physical or verbal aggression is directed at self, others, animals, or property
  • The student is unresponsive to the external environment;
    • He or she is incoherent or passed out
    • Disconnected from reality/exhibiting psychosis
    • Displaying unmitigated disruptive behavior
  • The situation feels threatening or dangerous to you

How to help the student who is in distress?

Listening Skills--Dos & Don’ts

Dos Don’ts
Listen for feelings Make the assumption about the student
Keep your language simple Agree or disagree
Make good eye contact Nod at the“wrong” time
Appear calm

Questioning Skills

To start a conversation – What brings you here today?
– I notice … so I am a bit worried about you… 
How to deal with silence I am wondering what you were thinking about just now?
Minimal Encouragers mm hmm, uh huh, ah, etc.
(Avoid using phrases like “yes” and “right”.)
Open-ended questions – Can you tell me more about that?
– What is it that bothers your most about this situation?
– How are you feeling right now?
Clarifiers – Could you give me an example of that?
– Do you mean …?
– I am not sure I understand your meaning. Can you please tell me a little more about that?
Reflecting Feelings It sounds like you feel…
It seems like you are saying/ feeling … 
I feel … when you … because… 

Other questions that may be useful

  • What have you tried to solve this problem?
  • Did you have this problem before? How did you handle it?
  • Have you talked about it with others, your parents or friends?
  • What do you think that has affected you?
  • Has it affected your sleep and appetite?

Signs that you may be over-involved

  • Feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation
  • Feeling angry at the student
  • Having thoughts of rescuing the student
  • Reliving similar experiences of your own

If you experience the above signs, you may be over-involved and need some help. Please feel free to consult with CAPS and ask for help.


Can I contact the student’s parents?

Please ask for the student’s permission and consult with CAPS first before you contact their parents. Even though sometimes student’s parents need to be informed, contacting them without the student’s permission may make the situation worse since sometimes student’s distress comes from family.

What if the student is reluctant to get help?

Your offer of help may be rejected. People in varying levels of distress sometimes deny their problems because it is difficult to admit they need help or they think things will get better on their own. Take time to listen to the student’s fears and concerns about seeking help. Let the student know that it is because of your concern that you are referring him or her to an important resource and he/she can talk about his/her concerns with CAPS staff before start using counseling service.

Students may not want to share with me their concerns because I am a faculty/staff. What should I do to be more approachable?

Students may feel like their professor/staff is an authority figure and therefore do not tend to reach out to them, especially about personal concerns. There may be an even larger power differences under Chinese cultural background. However, if you are a faulty/staff, it can be helpful to approach students first when you have some concerns. In the first class, you can also let students know that you are open for them to share personal concerns, and that you can offer help when needed. Most student will not reject the kindness and it is also helpful to build connections.

If I have a safety concern for a student, can I ask them directly? Will that increase their likelihood of committing suicide?

Yes and No. If there are signs of safety risk, ask if the student is considering suicide. A person contemplating suicide will likely be relieved that you asked. If he or she is not, asking the question will not plant the idea in his or her head.

For more information on how to help people with psychological distress, please explore