Once you have identified a student in distress, you have two options for responding:

If you have a relationship or rapport with the student, speaking directly with them may be the best option. Begin the conversation by expressing your concerns about the specific behaviours you have observed.

If you don’t really know the student, you may prefer to contact your campuses’ counselling or health services offices (or another network resource, if the incident occurs after hours) and ask for advice on how to deal with the situation.

Your decision about which path to choose may be influenced by:

  • Your level of experience
  • The nature and severity of the problem
  • Your ability to give time to the situation
  • A variety of other personal factors

Speaking Directly

If you choose to speak to the student directly, you need only listen, support the student, and offer resource referral information. You should are not expected to be a counsellor or an expert. In order to effectively help the student in such discussions:

  • Meet privately with the student (choose an appropriate time and place).
  • Express your concern and caring.
  • Point out specific behaviours you’ve observed. (“I’ve noticed lately that you….”)
  • Ask if it’s a good time to chat
  • Listen attentively to the student’s response and encourage them to talk. (“Tell me more about that.”)
  • Allow the student time to tell their story. Allow silences in the conversation. Don’t give up if the student is slow to talk.
  • Remember that opening up and talking about personal distress can be an act of courage and a challenge; your patience and caring can help make that process a little less difficult for the student.
  • Ask open-ended questions that deal directly with the issues without judging. (“What problem has that situation caused you?”)
  • If there are signs of a safety risk, ask if the student is considering suicide. A student who is considering suicide will likely be relieved that you asked. If the student is not contemplating suicide, asking the question will not put ideas in their head or increase the likelihood that the student will make an attempt.
  • Restate what you have heard as well as your concern and caring. (“What do you need to do to get back on a healthy path?”) Ask the student what they think would help.
  • Suggest resources and referrals. Share any information you have about the particular resource you are suggesting and its potential benefit to the student. (“I know the folks in that office and they are really good at helping students work through these kinds of situations.”)
  • Avoid making sweeping promises of confidentiality, particularly if the student presents a safety risk. However, only break confidentiality if the the student is at imminent risk.

Unless they are suicidal or may be a danger to others, the ultimate decision to access resources is the student’s. If, when you offer referral information, the student says, “I’ll think about it,” allow them to do so. Let the student know that you are interested in hearing how they are doing in a day or two. Speak with someone on your campus—academic advising office, dean, or someone else—about the conversation, and follow up with the student in a day or two. It is  important for your own mental wellness that you debrief with someone about any concerns or feelings you may have about the situation. Remember self-care is important.

Setting the stage for the Conversation

Sometimes before starting a conversation we may need to help the student feel grounded. A couple suggestions if they are unable to participate in a conversation because of high levels of distress:

  • suggest they put both feet on the ground and push down with their heels to help feel grounded.
  • suggest if they can look at you or something else in the room instead of looking down to help feel more in control over themselves.

Sometimes students just need to cry it out. Our role here is to simply let them know they are not alone in this and that they matter

It is also a good time to check in with yourself and make sure you too are practicing good self care, are feeling grounded and  ready to begin the conversation. Know your own limits.

Starting the Conversation

Once you notice that a student is in distress, you can speak to them about your concerns. Research regarding brief interventions supports several strategies for initiating and having an effective conversation, even when the source of the problem is unknown.

Ask permission to discuss the problem.

Share your concern and ask permission to speak about it further:

“I’m concerned about … I wonder if we could talk about … “

Refer to specific behaviours or patterns of behaviour:

“I’ve noticed that … “

Ask permission to talk about the topic and explore the student’s concern with open-ended questions:

“Would it be okay if we talked about …? What concerns do you have about … ?”

Provide room for disagreement:

“I may be wrong, but …” “This may seem like it’s coming out of left field, but …”

Practise active listening; let the student tell their story:

“I can certainly understand why that would be stressful. What happened?”

Acknowledge and support the student’s courage in disclosing a personal difficulty:

“I know that talking has been difficult; you’ve done very well.”

Explore Resources and Options.

Suggest to the student that there may be a number of options for getting help. Avoid offering unsolicited advice.

When talking about other services, try to provide a menu of options so that the student has choices, including discussions with a health care provider/counsellor or working to make changes on one’s own. It could help to write resources down so the student can take them away to think about them. If in distress, they might not recall all of the information relayed. After providing a range of suggestions, ask for the student’s opinion of these options:

“What do you think? Which of these do you believe might be most helpful to you?”

Emphasize personal control:

“Whatever you decide, it is ultimately up to you.”

Emphasize that the student does not need to deal with these issues alone:

“There’s no shame in seeking help or using the resources available to you. This is a good way to approach the problem.”

Close the discussion positively and leave room for further conversation. Thank the student for speaking honestly with you:

“I really appreciate your willingness to speak with me.”

Summarize a plan for change:
“It sounds like you recognize that …”

“Specifically you plan to …”

Keep the door open:

“I’d really like to hear how things are going with you. Would you feel comfortable checking back?”

If you are an educator, you don’t need to abandon your standards for behaviour and performance in order to support students who are experiencing difficulties or who are in distress, but you do need to approach these students with a helpful, non-judgmental attitude.

Maintaining Professional Boundaries

Boundaries define and separate professional roles from other roles. Boundaries are the limits that allow the safe connection between the professional and the client and are always based on the client’s needs (Peterson, 1992). When boundaries are functioning well they tend to go unnoticed. In a professional staff/student relationship, staff maintain boundaries that are consistent with the legal and ethical duty of care that campus personnel have for students.

Students do not always know how much information they should/need to disclose; to maintain proper professional boundaries, you should ask only for required information.

You only need enough information   to refer them to appropriate services. This process is easier when the student is registered with accessibility services. For example, a student with depression might need extra time for assignments and a student with anxiety may need a distraction-free room for exams. Students are under no obligation to disclose their diagnosis to you.

Sometimes, students share more information than is necessary. They may, for example, provide signs of or details about their diagnoses. Educators do not need this information, so they should not follow up with further questions. If a student “over-shares,” gently inform them that you only need enough information to facilitate an accommodation.

Calls to Action: Recognize, Respond, and Refer