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Helping a Student in Distress

If you are concerned about a student, here are some practical tips. You don't have to complete a thorough assessment, just ask some questions and provide support. If you aren't sure what to do, call the CC (540-568-6552). Our clinicians can support you in your efforts to help the student. Check out our How to Help a Distressed Student page for more about the consultation process.

  • Speak directly to them about your concerns, preferably in a private place. People in distress are almost always receptive to an expression of genuine interest, caring, and concern. It is important to realize that confronting someone does not mean judging, attacking, or blaming the person. It means initiating a conversation with someone about the things you've noticed that has made you concerned. It also shows that you are someone who is willing to help and offer them support.
  • Be specific about the behaviors you've observed that have caused your concern. Clearly state your observations in a nonjudgmental way. That makes it more difficult for them to deny that a problem exists. It also lets them know that you care enough to notice. "I've noticed that you haven't been to class in the past two weeks and your grades have suffered. When you are here, you haven't been participating and looked sad most of the time. I just wanted to let you know I'm concerned and wanted to check-in about how you are doing."
  • Express your feelings about the student's situation. "I'm really worried about you. I've been nervous to bring this up, but I wanted to share my concern and find out more about how you are doing."
  • Be a good listener. The important thing is that the student feels heard and understood. Even if you don't agree with their perspective, just listen. Don't get tempted to try and solve the problem or "say the right thing." Ask open-ended questions that invites the students to provide more information, "Tell me more about..." or "How have you been feeling since..." Check whether or not you understand what they told you by summarizing and reflecting it back to them.
  • Recognize the value of emotional release and encourage the student to "talk it out." Simply talking about the situation and knowing that someone cares can be tremendously healing. It's not going to make things worse, even if they appear to become more emotional. Those feelings were there the whole time, now they are letting them out.
  • Ask direct questions. Don't be afraid to ask the student directly if they are drunk, confused, or have thoughts of harming themselves or someone else. You will not be "putting ideas into their heads" by doing so. Most distressed students will be relieved and comforted by someone actually asking them what they are experiencing.
  • Don't dismiss the student's perspective. What may seem like a temporary or insignificant issue to you, may feel overwhelming to the student. It may be helpful for you to reflect upon a time in your own life when you experienced something similar, like when your heart was broken for the first time or someone close to you died.
  • Avoid labeling the student and their behavior. Since you are not conducting a thorough assessment, there is no need to label or diagnose. Avoid "I think you're an alcoholic" or "You have an eating disorder." Even if the label is true, they often increase defensiveness and block opportunities for them to acknowledge and address the concerns. Focus on the specific things you are concerned about, not your interpretation of what they could mean.
  • Frame the decision to seek and accept help as a courageous, mature choice. Suggest that a willingness to seek and accept assistance from others, including a clinician, indicates that the student is not running away from problems. It takes courage to face painful and scary things. Seeking support is one way to start solving the current issues and making positive changes. Certain individuals may have been socialized to be extremely independent, self-reliant, and solve problems on their own. It may help to suggest that seeking counseling is another way to improve their chances of solving their problem.
  • Don't dispense glib advice. While offered with the best of intentions, phrases like "Time heals all wounds", "When life hands you lemons...", "This too shall pass" aren't reassuring. They normally result in the student feeling misunderstood and hearing that issues aren't that important. "I'm sorry that happened to you" or "What can I do to help" are better responses.
  • Offer alternatives and establish hope. Intense emotional pain prevents people from creating alternative solutions to their problems. They often feel stuck and believe there is no way it can get better. Help the student develop a plan and locate resources. That will help them feel more hopeful and start them on the path to making positive changes. You could offer to find the number for the appropriate office and call for them, or walk over there with them. "Why don't we call your advisor and set up an appointment now?" or "Would you like me to walk over to the Counseling Center with you?"
  • Know your own limits. Simply listening and providing a little support and guidance, often helps most students in distress. However, others may require much more than you may can provide. Pay attention to signs that you are over-extending yourself: feeling stressed out or overwhelmed by the situation, feeling angry at or afraid of the student, feeling responsible for their safety and well-being, and having thoughts of "adopting" or otherwise rescuing the student.
  • Respect the student's privacy, but only up to a point. Confidentiality is vital for trust, so you typically should not share with others what the student has shared with you. However, you must never fall into the "confidentiality trap". In situations involving a serious risk of harm to the person or someone else, don't promise to keep secrets. Despite any protest ("You're going to make this worse!"), the potential risks of not sharing the information must be your first concern. Point out the bind that you are in (e.g., "If someone came to you with a situation like this, what would you do? Keep it a secret or get them help?").
  • Recommend that the student meet with a clinician at the CC. Let the student know that CC services are free, voluntary, and confidential. Describe the benefits of counseling. Let the student know that clinicians work hard to understand students, to see things from their point of view, and to collaboratively help them to figure out solutions. Help them make the appointment by calling the CC (540-568-6552). If the student is really upset, or if you're worried that he or she might not follow through, suggest making an appointment right then and there. Some faculty, staff, and friends accompany students to the CC. Follow up with the student. Ask how the first appointment went (you don't need the details, just that they connected with someone). Please remember that, because of confidentiality laws, clinicians cannot talk with you about a person you have referred without an signed release.