Faculty & Staff Response Guide for Supporting Students in Distress

Supporting students in distress: information for faculty and staff

At times you’ve probably noticed students who seem to be in distress.  You may have worried about them but not known how – or whether you can or should do anything about it.

This Response Guide is intended to help you identify, and potentially assist, students in distress.  You don't need to take on the role of a counsellor but your observations and actions can play a key role in connecting students with the many available resources and supports at SFU. 

Together we can all build a more supportive campus community.

If you are unsure ask for advice:  

Contact Health & Counselling now >

About mental health and well-being

Everyone experiences changes in their mental health. At times stress can accumulate; a crisis can occur or traditional coping strategies may be insufficient. Mental Health concerns can have a significant impact on our lives - including academic, professional and personal success.  

Post-secondary institutions across Canada report an increase in the number of students presenting with mental health concerns.  MacKean (2011) summarizes some of the identified causes:

    • more young people with pre-existing mental health concerns are choosing to pursue post-secondary education;

    • 15-25 is a natural age of onset of mental disorders, an age where many young people are attending college/university;

    • a developmental vulnerability to social pressures, including substance abuse;

    • life stressors (e.g., moving away from home; transitioning from high school to college/university); and

    • the college and university environment itself, which is often described as competitive and stressful. (MacKean, 2011, p 8)

 With the right support and conditions it is possible for all mental health challenges to be overcome. 

Click here for information about how you can create conditions that support well-being in the classroom.  

Observations that might prompt you to have a conversation with a student

  • Other students, faculty or staff express concern for the student

  • A student says (or writes) something that makes you think they are unusually unhappy or angry

  • A feeling that the student is struggling with something

  • Noticing specific behaviours of concern, including chronic absenteeism

Connect with the student

  • If appropriate, talk to the student, in private, about what you have seen and express your concern

  • Focus on the specific behaviour(s) you have observed

  • Be patient and encourage the student to speak freely

  •  Avoid giving advice

  •   If the student is agitated, consider having someone else present or nearby

Response guide for faculty and staff

Observe and check-in

Here are some examples of behaviours you may observe and questions you might ask.  If you are unsure ask for advice. 

Confidentiality:  Seeking advice is acting in the best interest of the student. In most cases, you won’t be required to provide identifying details.  Under BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, you can provide identifying details to fellow employees of SFU if compelling circumstances exist that affect anyone’s health or safety.

You may have noticed a specific behaviour, for example:

  •  Sudden changes in academic performance

  • Exaggerated emotional responses

  • Changes in attendance

You may ask:

  • "I've noticed you haven't been attending class regularly."

  •  "Are you ok?"

  • "Have you been under a lot of stress lately?" 

You may have noticed a specific behaviour, for example:

  • Repeated requests for special consideration

  • Changes in dress/hygiene

  • Changes in social behaviour

You might ask:

  •"I've noticed you've made several requests for accommodation recently.  

  • "Have you been under a lot of stress lately?

  • "Do you feel unable to cope?"

You may have noticed a specific behaviour, for example:

  • Suspected drug/alcohol misuse

  • Behaviour that is violent, destructive or threatening to self or others

If you feel safe, you might ask:

  • "Have you felt that life is not worth living?

  • "Are you thinking of harming yourself or others?

  • "Are you thinking of killing yourself?"

Reflect and refer

Consider the student's responses, and the appropriate referral.  Keep in mind that students may choose to decline support, unless the concern is severe.   

If the student's response suggests:

• that they are having personal or relationship problems, academic concerns, depression or anxiety

Encourage the student to seek support in the near future, but don’t insist.

Tell the student that Health and Counselling Services provides free counselling; and/or refer them to other services, such as:

Academic Advising

International Services for Students

Interfaith Centre

Centre for Students with Disabilities

A more complete list is available under the resources section of this page.  

If the student's response suggests: 

• that they may have experienced sexual violence or another traumatic event

• that they may be having suicidal thoughts

• that they are having difficulty coping but there is not an urgent concern of harm to self or others

Encourage the student to seek immediate counselling support, but don’t insist.

You may walk the student to Health & Counselling or call to refer the student.

Let the student know about the Vancouver Crisis Line 604-872-3311 (available 24 hours).

In the event of a sexual assault, see www.sfu.ca/sexual-assault and help the student find options for support and referrals. 

If the student's response suggests:

• the student may be a threat or risk to self or others

Contact Campus Security immediately.

If you judge that the student is at imminent risk of attempting suicide, do not leave them alone. Call Campus Security at 778-782-4500 or call 911 if off campus, they will manage the case going forward.

Support for you

Please take care of yourself and seek the support you need. In an emergency situation, you can receive

personal support in Health & Counselling. You also have access to the Employee and Family

Assistance program (EFAP). 

Visit Human Resources for more info >

Training and workshops

Support over suicide and Supporting students in distress 

Health & Counselling offers free workshops designed to train participants to recognize students who are suicidal and/or distressed, as well as to support and refer these students effectively.

Click here to register or find more info about upcoming workshops >

Identifying and responding to behaviours of concern

The Academic Integrity and Good Conduct Office offers free workshops designed to increase participant's awareness of behaviours of concern and ability to distinguish between behaviours seen as distressing, disruptive or dangerous.  Take aways include a broader understanding of SFU's student conduct process, and the range of possible responses and referrals available for behaviours of concern. For more information email aigco@sfu.ca;or 

Click here to find more info > 

Contacts for Support and Information

Health & Counselling

Find hours of operation and contact info here >

Mention you would like advice supporting a student in distress. If calling from Surrey or Vancouver Campus mention your location for specific options at your campus.

Campus Security

Available 24/7

Find more info >

Security staff will assess the situation. They may provide advice or call 911 if police or an ambulance is required. During clinic hours, security staff might escort the student to Health and Counselling Services.

Academic Integrity and Good Conduct Office

Student Conduct Coordinator

Phone: 778.782.9456
Email: aigco@sfu.ca

Provides non-emergency consultation, support and education on identifying and responding to behaviours of concern, including student misconduct matters. May provide Case Management with students experiencing complex needs and circumstances that impact their academic efforts and/ or increase their chances of student misconduct involvement.  

Vancouver Crisis Line

Available 24/7

Distress Line: 604-872-3311

Find more info >

Student Academic and Support Resources

Centre for Students with Disabilities
Website: www.sfu.ca/students/disabilityaccess

Graduate Student Society Advocacy Office
Website: www.sfugradsociety.ca

Human Rights and Equity
Website: www.sfu.ca/humanrights

Indigenous Student Centre
Website: www.sfu.ca/students/indigenous

Interfaith Centre
Website: www.sfu.ca/students/interfaith

International Services for Students
Website: www.sfu.ca/students/international

Office of the Ombudsperson
Website: www.sfu.ca/ombudsperson

Out on Campus
Website: ooc.sfss.ca

Women’s Centre
Website: wctr.sfss.ca