Action Step 2: Respond

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 her/him may be the best option. Begin the conversation by expressing your concerns about the specific behaviours you have observed.

If you do not really know the student, you may prefer to contact your university's 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

If you choose to speak to the student directly, you need only listen, support the student, and offer resource referral information. You should not be taking on the role of counsellor. In order to effectively help the student in such discussions:

  • Meet privately with the student (choose a time and place when/where you will not be interrupted).
  • Set a positive tone. Express your concern and caring.
  • Point out specific behaviours you've observed. (“I've noticed lately that you....")
  • Ask, “How are things going for you?"
  • Listen attentively to the student's response and encourage her/him to talk. (“Tell me more about that.")
  • Allow the student time to tell her/his 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 her/his 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 s/he thinks 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. Students who are suicidal need swift professional intervention.

Unless s/he is 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 her/him to do so. Let the student know that you are interested in hearing how s/he is doing in a day or two. Speak with someone in your university—academic advising office, dean, or someone else—about the conversation, and follow up with the student in a day or two.

Starting the Conversation

Once you notice that a student is in distress, you can speak to her/him 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 her/his 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."

Provide advice and suggestions.

Suggest to the student that there may be a number of options for getting help. Here again, it is helpful to ask permission before giving advice:
“People have found a couple of different things to be useful (helpful) in situations like this. Would you be willing to talk about these strategies (resources)?"

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. 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

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. The level of information needed may be different for students who are registered with accessibility services and those who are not.

You only need enough information to secure accommodations for students who need them, or 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 details about their diagnoses or symptoms. Educators do not need this information, so they should not follow up with further questions. If a student “over-shares," gently inform her/him that you only need enough information to facilitate an accommodation.

Next Up: Step 3: Refer