Responding to the Distressed Student

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 students are summarized below. You can also view the attached pdf:  Helping a Distressed Student – Decision Tree


The first important step in assisting distressed students is to be familiar with the signs of distress and notice 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. Be specific with the student about the behavior or observations that have caused you concern. Early feedback, intervention, and/or referral can prevent more serious problems from developing.

Listen Objectively

To listen to someone is to refrain from imposing your own point of view, to withhold advice unless it is requested, and to concentrate on the feelings and thoughts of the person you are trying to help, instead of your own. Listening is probably the most important skill used in helping and can be facilitated by allowing the student enough time and latitude to express thoughts and feelings as fully as possible. Some things to listen for include a student’s view of him/herself, view of his/her current situation or environment and the view of the future. Negative comments about these issues indicate a student may be in trouble.

Offer Support and Assistance

Among the most important helping tools are interest, concern, and attentive listening. Avoid criticism or judgmental comments. Summarize the essence of what the student has told you as a way to clarify the situation. Encourage positive action by helping the student define the problem and generate coping strategies. Suggest resources that the student can access: friends, family, clergy, or professionals on campus.

Know Your Limits

As a help-giver, only go as far as your expertise, training, and resources allow. If you are uncertain about your ability to help a student, it is best to be honest about it. Trust your feelings when you think an individual’s problem is more than you can handle. When a student needs more help than you are able or willing to give, it is time to make a referral to a professional. Below are some signs to look for in your feelings that may suggest the assistance of a professional is warranted. You feel yourself feeling responsible for the student

  •  You feel pressure to solve their problems
  •  You feel you are over-extending yourself in helping the student
  •  You feel stressed-out by the student’s issue(s) or behavior
  •  You see a behavioral pattern repeating itself in your interaction with the student
  •  You feel that the problems a student brings to you are more than you can handle
  •  You feel anxious when the student approaches you