The Counselling Centre

Responding to the Student in Need - How can you Help?

If you have noticed signs of a student in distress, you are faced with the decision of whether or not to intervene. Faculty members are a front line contact with students and your intervention, if done appropriately, can make a great deal of difference. For students dealing with mental illness the earlier they receive treatment the better the outcome. The following are some suggestions that will help in reaching out to a student in distress:


Try not to fix, correct, disagree or advise, just listen to what the student is saying. Practice good non-verbal and verbal skills when listening. Maintain eye contact, appear relaxed and approachable. Avoid touching the student as this comforting may be misconstrued.


Express your concerns in a non-judgmental rather than blaming way, (e.g. "I am concerned because this is the 3rd time you have asked for an extension on your paper." VS "You don't seem concerned that your paper is late again"). Meet with the student privately and repeat back the essence of what the student has communicated to you (e.g. "It sounds like you are disappointed with your exam results"). Try to understand how they may see things and how they may be feeling. Understand that how you may have dealt with a situation they are facing may not be how others deal with it. What is stressful to one person may/may not be to another. Everyone processes experiences very differently depending on their values, upbringing and supports.

Offer Hope and Normalize

Share that everyone goes through difficult periods in their life and that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Share a bit of your own experience as a student if you feel comfortable (keep this to a minimum as you want to maintain your professional relationship with the student). Look for options with them on how they can deal with their situation. If a student believes there are options open to them, they normally become more hopeful with their situation. Become knowledgeable beforehand and suggest resources on and off campus that students might need to utilize - a business card or name and number on hand can make a difference when making a referral. The Counselling Centre will gladly provide business cards, just call 902-420-5615 and request some.

Maintain Clear, Appropriate and Consistent Boundaries

Remember you are not a professional Clinical Therapist/Psychologist and so should not act as if you can help in that way. It is extremely important that the nature of your relationship to the student remain the same for the student after they have disclosed something personal. It is important that you understand the limitations of your helpfulness. Most times, being helpful means pointing a student to the right student service.


It is important to offer the following when making a referral:

  • Tell them that seeking help is normal, that is why these services are on campus.
  • Offer a name or business card of the person you are referring to.
  • Be direct and say that you believe they might benefit from seeing a professional (Clinical Therapist/Psychologist).
  • Inform them that services are free of charge and confidential and that many students use these services.
  • Acknowledge, validate and discuss the student's real fears and concerns about seeking help. If they are very hesitant, suggest they go one time to see what it is like…and then make a decision.


It is important that you check to make sure they did follow through on the referral. This communicates your concern for them and lets the student know that you continue to be a resource for them. Remember that once a student discloses personal information to you he/she may find it easier to talk to you than to reach out to a professional (additional encouragement to access a service may be needed). Make sure you don't end up in a role you can't fill. Knowing your limitations is important.

A Note on Crying

Some students cry more than others and that is ok. Crying helps them release their emotions and is perfectly normal. Students can be very embarrassed when they cry in front of a Professor. You should have a box of tissue ready to offer them and then say something like "I will give you a minute before we talk about what some options are". Be silent and let them cry. It normally takes just a short time for someone to bring themselves back to being able to carry on a conversation. Crying does not always mean a student is in crisis.

What if the Student is Reluctant to Seek Help?

Counselling is not mandatory. If a student refuses to go, that is his or her decision. If you are concerned about that student, call:

The Counselling Centre: 902-420-5615

Student Health Services: 902-420-5611

If you believe it is an emergency situation (the student is threatening, suicidal, &/or won't leave your office) call University Security at 902-420-5000.