Responding to Students in Distress

Taking Appropriate Action

When you have identified a student in distress, you have the option of choosing to:

  • Speak directly to the student
  • Refer the student to a WPI resource such as the SDCC, or Academic Advising 

These options are certainly not mutually exclusive; in many situations, doing both will be appropriate. Your decision about where to begin may be influenced by:

  • Your level of experience
  • The nature or severity of the problem
  • Your ability to give time to the situation

If you have a relationship or rapport with the student, speaking directly to him or her may be a good choice. Start the conversation by expressing your concerns about specific behaviors you have observed. If you do not have an especially close relationship with the student—or if you worry that direct contact from you would not be well received—feel free to contact the SDCC or other office.

Make Contact

If you chose to make contact, you will not be taking on the role of counselor. You need only listen, care, and offer resource referral information.

  • Meet privately with the student; choose a time and place where you will not be interrupted.
  • Set a positive tone. Express your concern and caring.
  • Point out specific signs you’ve observed. "I’ve noticed lately that you…"
  • Listen attentively to the student’s response and encourage him or her to talk. “Tell me more about that.”
  • Allow the student time to tell the story. Allow silences in the conversation. Don’t give up if the student is slow to speak.
  • Ask open-ended questions that deal directly with the issues without judging. "What problems has that situation caused you?"
  • Suggest campus resources.
  • Avoid promises of confidentiality, particularly if the student presents a safety risk.
  • Change is a process. Let the student know that you are interested in hearing how he or she is doing in a day or two and then follow up.

If there are signs of safety risk, ask if the student is considering suicide. A person contemplating suicide will likely be relieved that you asked. If he or she is not, asking the question will not plant the idea in his or her head.

Make a Referral

Acknowledge your limitations. When referring a student, make it clear that your referral to someone else does not mean that you think there is something wrong with the student or that you are not interested. Explain that it instead has to do with the limitations of your knowledge and experience. The referral organization/office, on the other hand, has the resources and training to assist the student in a more appropriate manner.

Initiate the referral. Provide name, phone number, and office location of the referral location or walk the student to the SDCC or other appropriate resource if doing so seems like it would help him or her follow through. Try to normalize the need to ask for help as much as possible. It can be reassuring if you know the names of staff members and can speak highly of them. Convey the spirit of hopefulness that troublesome situations can and do get better.

Accept students’ concerns. Recognize that your offer of help may be rejected. People in varying levels of distress sometimes deny their problems because it is difficult to admit they need help or they think things will get better on their own. Take time to listen to the student’s fears and concerns about seeking help. Let the student know that it is because of your concern that you are referring him or her to an important resource.

Offer to follow up. End the conversation in a way that will allow you or the student to come back to the subject at another time. Keep the lines of communication open and invite the student back to follow up.

Consult with the SDCC

The SDCC welcomes information from staff and faculty members, parents, friends, and anyone concerned about our students. While the boundaries of confidentiality prevent us from sharing information with you about students we see, our work is always strongly aided by your observations and comments.

The SDCC staff is always willing to strategize with you on how to approach students and connect them with our office or other appropriate resources. Please call our office at +1-508-831-5540 to set up consultation with one of our staff members.

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Student Support Network

Where students are trained and committed to improving the quality of life for all members of the WPI community.