Faculty & Staff: Assisting Students in Distress
Includes general principles for recognizing signs of distress in students, talking with students about yours concerns, and making appropriate referrals.
Supplements the written guidelines by providing actual practice in faculty-student dialogs and making mental health referrals.
A slide presentation that provides guidelines for talking with a student who comes to you with a concern or for whom you have a concern.
Student Mental Health and Resources and The 4R's of Responding to Students in Distress
General mental health concerns:
Call Student Counseling, 320-589-6060
Potential risk for harm to self or others:
Immediate risk to self or others:
Provides supportive services to groups of students affected by traumatic events.
Recommended Mental Health Syllabus Statement
The purpose of this statement is to highlight the University of Minnesota’s commitment to student mental health and to connect students with appropriate campus resources. Download Mental Health Syllabus Statement (PDF)
Student Counseling is available for consultation by students, faculty and staff, and parents who have mental health concerns about student.
If you choose to approach a student you are concerned about or if a student reaches out to you, these suggestions might make the experience more comfortable for you and more helpful for the student.
What To Do
- If possible, GATHER INFORMATION before you intervene. Knowing where to refer a depressed or anxious student ahead of time might save time and increase the student's confidence in you.
- ENSURE PRIVACY when you talk and choose a time when you are not preoccupied or rushed. If you are concerned about your safety or about anyone's behavior being misinterpreted, ask you supervisor or a trusted colleague to join you and explain why to the student.
- EXPRESS CONCERN in specific, nonjudgmental, behavioral terms (“I noticed you haven’t been to class in three weeks” not “Where have you been lately?”)
- BE HONEST and direct; say what you mean and mean what you say.
- LISTEN to the student in a sensitive, non-threatening way.
- CLARIFY your understanding by asking questions.
- DEMONSTRATE your understanding by repeating back the essence of what the student has said. Try to include both the CONTENT (“So you are new to this campus…”) and the FEELINGS (“…and you are feeling overwhelmed.”)
- COMMUNICATE HOPE by reminding the student that there are always options, and things tend to look different with time.
- RECOMMEND RESOURCES appropriate to the problem. Included below is a listing of university offices that may be of help. Remind the student that using resources is a sign of strength and courage, not weakness or failure.
- MAINTAIN PROFESSIONALISM and be clear about what you can and cannot do.
- RESPECT the student’s value system and culture.
- FOLLOW UP in a reasonable length of time.
- RECOGNIZE that the student may not immediately welcome or act upon your interventions, but you may plant a seed that blossoms later and it is never wrong to communicate kindness and concern.
- CONSULT with other professionals about your concerns by contacting any of the offices listed below.
- DOCUMENT concerns using Academic Alert System
A Few Things to Avoid
- DON’T judge, evaluate or criticize, even if asked; usually this shuts down communication.
- DON’T be a hero or savior; recognize the limits of your role and refer to other professionals.
- DON’T give special consideration to a student unless you would do it for any student in a similar situation.
- DON’T make promises you cannot or will not keep.
- DON’T promise absolute confidentiality in all circumstances; if the student or others are in danger, you will need to act.
- DON’T be afraid to intervene for fear you will say the wrong thing; saying nothing to a suffering person is almost always worse.
Suicide is a very serious mental health concern. A student may indicate a specific suicidal plan. The student may also express suicidal thoughts which can include expressing a wish to die. Sometimes this can be a plea for help or a warning.
Take Suicide Very Seriously
Remember: People who talk about suicide, threaten to commit suicide or call suicide crisis centers are 30 times more likely than average to kill themselves.
How to Respond
- Stay calm and listen
- Take threats and thoughts seriously
- Don’t agree to secrecy
- De accepting; do not judge
- GET HELP
If a student has harmed him/herself in any way, tells you he/she has taken pills (including over the counter medications) or has an immediate suicide plan, call 911.
- If the student reports this in an email call 911 and share this information with the responder
- If the student is on the phone, and there is no one availiable to assist you with the situation, get the students address, phone number, and call 911. Let the student know you will call him/her after you get some resources to assist them.
- If there is someone available to assist you with this situation, pass that individual a note to call 911 and keep the student on the line.
If a student is expressing suicidal thoughts, appears depressed or shows other distressing behaviors but does not indicate an immediate plan and/or can reassure you that they are “safe,” call Student Counseling 320-589-6060 to get a follow-up appointment.
More information about Crisis Consultation
You note that a student has had a marked change in behavior or habits - he or she has stopped attending class, performs more poorly, rarely interacts, is poorly groomed, or appears exhausted. The student may behave inappropriately by speaking loudly or out of turn or off-topic, or in ways that are strange and off-putting to others. What do you do?
How to Respond:
TALK with the student in a private setting.
EXPRESS your concerns, noting the behaviors you have observed.
LISTEN to thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way.
ASK if help is needed or wanted, and what might be of help.
SET LIMITS by clarifying what is and is not acceptable behavior, and what the consequences will be for noncompliance.
GIVE SUPPORT and understanding wherever you genuinely can.
REFER to professional care if needed by giving contact information about available services listed below.
CONSULT with others as appropriate (faculty, Student Counseling, Student Affairs, other University offices). Questions about whether or not student behavior violates the Student Conduct Code, should be directed to your Division Chair.
FOLLOW UP with the student in a reasonable period of time.
SEVERELY DISRUPTIVE BEHAVIOR THAT ENDANGERS THE STUDENT OR OTHERS MUST BE DEALT WITH IMMEDIATELY BY CALLING 911.
Stalking may be best defined as unwanted pursuit. Students have been known to stalk staff or faculty, sometimes without the victim recognizing it as stalking. Stalking can reflect many different behaviors including:
- Following or surveillance
- Inappropriate approaches and confrontations
- Appearing at a place of work or residence
- Unwanted telephone calls
- Unwanted letters
- Unwanted email
- Unwanted or threatening gifts
- Threats to family and friends
- Damage to property
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault
How To Respond
- Get advice from a University or other resource below.
- Tell the stalker “no” in regards to the unwanted behavior once and only once. Do not give him or her the satisfaction of a reaction again. The more you respond, the more you teach him or her that his actions will elicit a response.
- Do not respond to email (a “returned unread” email is a response).
- Document everything. Keep tapes from answering machines, letters, gifts, etc. Keep a log of any suspicious occurrences. This documentation will increase your ability to take disciplinary or legal action if necessary.
- Keep a cell phone with you at all times, even inside your home. (Note: a cell phone that does not have service can still dial 911)
Many stalking victims are routinely told to get restraining orders. Unfortunately, a restraining order is no guarantee that the stalker will stop or that the police will be able to intervene. Some stalkers such as former intimate-partner stalkers who are very invested in the relationship and stalkers suffering from delusional thinking are unlikely to respect restraining orders. Sometimes a restraining order can worsen the situation. Discuss the Pros and Cons of restraining orders with one of the resources below before seeking one. Stalking is a misdemeanor in Minnesota (unless stalking occurs across state lines in which case it is a felony).
Students may inform you that they have a disability. They may ask you to make a modification (e.g. extra time on exams, a change in due dates, or alternate assignments) to allow them to succeed in your course. It can be difficult to determine what is fair for students requesting modifications and what is fair to the other students in the class. Understanding your role when presented with this information will allow students to get the assistance they are entitled to and allow you to provide optimal educational opportunities for all students, including those with disabilities.
How To Respond
- Talk with the student in a private setting.
- Refer students to the Disability Resource Center if they are requesting a modification in the course. The Disability Resource Center will work with the student to obtain documentation of a disabling condition, identify and assist with implementation of reasonable accommodations, and communicate in writing to the instructor if classroom accommodations are necessary.
- Assure the student that you are willing to provide reasonable accommodations. However, it is the role of the Disability Resource Center, with your input, to determine what is reasonable and to communicate this to you in writing.
- Contact the Disability Resource Center if you have questions regarding the accommodation process, recommended accommodations, or your role in the process.
- Be proactive. Encourage students to disclose the existence of a potential disability condition to the Disability Resource Center. The Disability Resource Center recommends that University faculty use the following statement on their course syllabi to inform students of their willingness to provide reasonable accommodations:
“It is University policy to provide, on a flexible and individualized basis, reasonable accommodations to students who have documented disability conditions (e.g., physical, learning, psychiatric, vision, hearing, or systemic) that may affect their ability to participate in course activities or to meet course requirements.”
More information about University Policy on Disabilities:
Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact the Disability Resource Center to have a confidential discussion of their individual needs for accommodations. The Disability Resource Center is located in Briggs Library 240. 320-589-6178