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How to Help a Student in Distress: Information for Staff and Faculty

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As a member of Concordia University faculty or staff, you are in contact with students every day.  You will at some point witness a student in distress and may wonder how to help them. Faculty and staff are a critical part of the “web of support” that can identify and help students who are suffering.  The following information will:

  • Help you identify the student in distress;
  • Offer suggestions on how to support the student;
  • Help you link the student to resources at Concordia

What to Look For:  Signs of Distress

Every person experiences and exhibits stress in a different way. Signs that a student may be dealing with a serious personal problem include:

  • Talking about distress
  • Academic difficulties
  • Changes in personality
  • Changes in mood/emotions
  • Changes in behaviours
  • Talking about suicide
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Changes in personal hygiene, physical appearance or health
  • Problems with drugs and alcohol

How to Approach the Student

1. Be Prepared

Familiarize yourself with the various services available at Concordia.  These include:

2. Express Your Concern
  • Invite the student to talk with you in a quiet location one-on-one, like your office or after class.
  • Be specific. Identify particular behaviors that you are concerned about, e.g. “I have noticed that you have missed three classes in the past month, and I’m concerned,” rather than “Why have you missed so many classes lately?”
  • Many students are hesitant to talk with a counselor or mental health professional because they believe it might make a bad impression, it might affect their reputation, or it is unacceptable to talk to people outside the family about personal feelings. Let the student know that talking with a mental health professional is simply another way to improve their academic performance, enhance their peace of mind, and achieve their goals, akin to attending tutorials or accessing the library.
  • Listen carefully and in a nonjudgmental manner. Demonstrate empathy and caring, but avoid showing shock or dismay at what the student reveals; this may cause the student to withdraw if they feel judged, and prevent them from receiving the help they need.
3. Provide Information and Referral

Inform the student about the various services that are available to help them at Concordia University.  If the student refuses a referral, reinforce with them that you are available to follow up on the offer of referral at a later date.

Do not expect that the student will immediately reveal the issues that are concerning them, or that they will discuss all of the different issues that are troubling them with you. However, your concern will let the student know that there are people who care and are willing to help. Remember, your goal is not to solve the student’s problems; it is to give them hope, letting them know that things can get better and that there are many resources available to help them through this difficult time.

4. Follow up

If possible, arrange a follow-up meeting with the student to demonstrate your support and commitment to helping them. If the student accessed the resources you suggested, you can ask about the experience (if they seem interested in sharing this). If they did not get in touch with the resources, continue to encourage them and share your confident expectation that things can get better.

For More Information

You may be interested in learning more about how to help students in distress.  A helpful resource is a guide from the University of Connecticut called “Helping Students in Distress” that provides some specific phrases and practical hints to help you navigate these challenging interactions.

What if it is an Emergency?

If you believe the student is immediate danger of hurting them-self or another person, you must act immediately to help the person, and those around them. You may witness:

  • Highly disruptive behavior (e.g. aggression);
  • An inability to communicate clearly (e.g. disjointed or rambling speech), or;
  • A loss of contact with reality (e.g. seeing/hearing things which others cannot; beliefs or actions that are not based in reality).

Call Security at 514-848-3717, who will contact 911 for you.  Offer the student a safe, quiet place to wait.


Faculty and staff members are in a special position to identify and help students who are in distress. A person who is seen as trustworthy and willing to listen can become a significant resource to the student in difficulty. When you show your concern, caring, and support to a student who is suffering, you can play an important role in the final outcome of the student’s experience. By linking the student to resources at Concordia University, they can get the help they need to cope with the situation, experience healing, and succeed in their academic careers and other life goals.

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