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University Counseling Center

Responding to Distressed or Distressing Students

Because you come in frequent contact with many students, you are in an excellent position to observe students, identify those who are in distress, and offer assistance. Your care, concern, and assistance will often be enough to help the student. At other times, you can play a critical role in referring a student for appropriate assistance and in motivating him/her to seek such help. A few guidelines for responding to distressed or distressing students are summarized below:

OBSERVE: The first important step in assisting distressed students is to be familiar with the symptoms of distress and attend to their occurrence. An attentive observer will pay close attention to direct communications as well as implied or hidden feelings.

INITIATE CONTACT: Don’t ignore strange, inappropriate or unusual behavior – respond to it! Talk to the student privately, in a direct and matter-of-fact manner, indicating concern. Early feedback, intervention, and/or referral can prevent more serious problems from developing.

OFFER SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE: Among the most important helping tools are interest, concern, and attentive listening. Avoid criticism or sounding judgmental. Summarize the essence of what the student has told you as a way to clarify the situation; provide hope that things can get better. Encourage positive action by helping the student define the problem and generate coping strategies. Suggest other resources that the student can take advantage of: friends, family, clergy, or professionals on campus.


  • “I’m so sorry you’re having difficulties, would you like to talk about them?” or “I noticed you missed some classes and I’m concerned. Can we talk about it?”
  • “Sounds like your are really struggling with ___. Many people find it helpful to talk with someone in confidence who is outside of the situation.”
  • “You know…we have some really excellent counseling professionals on campus who can provide you with assistance. Would you like me to help get you connected to them?”
  • “I’m concerned enough about you that I’d like to have you speak with someone at the counseling center. Would that be okay with you?”


  • First clarify: What does the student want to accomplish
  • What has the student done to try to resolve the problem?
  • What solutions can you and the student brainstorm?
  • What other resources might be helpful, including a referral for counseling?


  • Try to identify what specific behavior makes you uncomfortable (and consider asking the student to change that behavior)
  • Don’t confront the person, but don’t give in to inappropriate behavior. Set boundaries and be assertive immediately. e.g. “I’d like you to lower your voice.”
  • Stay in a public place or keep your door slightly open and make sure colleagues are around
  • Involve a third party
  • Have a code word for calling a colleague or security if you feel threatened
  • Call Security beforehand (585) 275-3333 to stand by in the vicinity if you feel frightened or to intervene in the early stages if the person acts out

CONSULT WITH THE UR UCC STAFF: In your attempt to help a student, you may need input from a professional. The counseling staff can suggest possible approaches to take, provide you with support, or intervene directly with students. Call us for assistance at (585) 275-3113.

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