responding to students in distress

A response guide for faculty and staff

At times, you’ve probably noticed students who seem to be in distress. You may have worried about them and hoped they’re getting the help they need — but not known whether you can or should do anything about it. Your observations and actions can help connect students to the many available resources at SFU.

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 you can play a key role in connecting students with resources and support.

Interested in professional development opportunities? See our current offerings.

Contact the Student Conduct Office at 778-782-9456 about students exhibiting concerning behaviour.

Together we can build a more supportive campus community.

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
  • You have a sense that the student is struggling with something
  • You notice specific behaviours of concern, including chronic absenteeism

Connect with the student

  • If appropriate, talk to the student privately about what you have seen and express your concern
  • Focus on the specific behaviour(s) you have observed
  • Be patient and allow the student to speak freely
  • Avoid giving advice
  • If the student is agitated, consider having someone else present (or nearby), or call Campus Security


If you seek advice, you are acting in the best interest of the student. In most cases, you won’t be required to identify the student. Under BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, you can provide identifying details to fellow employees of SFU in situations that could affect anyone’s health or safety.

alert Emergency help

If this is an emergency or crisis situation, call:

  • 911 immediately
  • Campus Public Safety 778-782-4500
Need advice?

If you are unsure, contact SFU Health & Counselling for advice.

Contact us now >

Observe and check-in

Here are some examples of behaviours you may observe, and questions you might ask.

If you are unsure, ask SFU Health & Counselling for advice.

Mild to moderate concern

You may have noticed a specific behaviour:

  • Sudden decline in academic performance
  • Exaggerated emotional responses
  • Changes in attendance

You might ask:

  • “I’ve noticed you haven’t been attending class regularly, are you okay?”
  • “Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”

Moderate to severe concern

You may have noticed a specific behaviour:

  • 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, is everything okay?”
  • “Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”
  • “Do you feel unable to cope?”

Severe concern

You may have noticed a specific behaviour:

  • Suspected drug/alcohol misuse
  • Behaviour that is violent, destructive or threatening to self or others

You might ask:

  • “Have you felt that life is not worth living?”
  • “Have you had any thoughts 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 they are a risk to themselves or others.

Mild to moderate concern

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 & Counselling Services and My SSP. Provide and/or refer them to other services, such as:

  • Academic Advising
  • International Services for Students
  • Interfaith Centre
  • Centre for Accessible Learning

You’ll find a full list of services at

Follow up with the student.

Moderate to severe concern

If the student’s response suggests:
  • that they may have experienced sexual assault 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.

Call Health & Counselling Services and ask to speak to a Mental Health Nurse or Counsellor for information and referral support.

Let the student know about 24-hour crisis lines:

  • Vancouver Crisis Line: 604-872-3311
  • My SSP1-844-451-9700

For sexual assault support, see and help the student find information on their options for support and referrals.

Severe concern

If the student’s response suggests:
  • the student may be a threat or risk to self or others

Call 911.

If you judge that the student is at imminent risk of attempting suicide, do not leave them alone.

Call 911 and if at SFU also call Campus Public Safety at 778-782-4500 to help direct emergency services.

Further resources

Health & Counselling (HCS)

Contact us for advice. If you are calling from Surrey or Vancouver campus, please say so. There are options specific to those campuses.

Monday to Friday, 9AM – 4:30PM


Click to view website >


My SSP (Student Support Program)

Download the free My SSP app from Apple store or Google Play. It offers 24/7 free, confidential counselling support and wellness resources for SFU graduate and undergraduate students. Available in multiple languages via app or phone. Includes advice for staff/faculty supporting students.

Available 24/7

1-844-451-9700 (011-416-380-6578 from outside North America)

Click to view website >

Campus Security

Security staff will assess the situation. They may provide advice or call 911 if police or an ambulance is required.

Available 24/7


Click to view website >

Recognize, Render and Redirect

Hosted by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, this video presentation by Dr. Maria-Lucia Di Placito aims to better equip faculty members with the tools they need to support student mental health.

Click to view website >

Vancouver Crisis Line

Available 24/7

Distress Line

Click to view website >

Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO)

A trauma-informed and survivor-centered service which offers support to campus community members impacted by sexual violence, regardless of when or where the incident took place. Offers confidential support, information, and referrals as well as educational programming and initiatives.


Click to view website > 

Student Conduct Office

Provides consultation services, support, and education to the SFU community on student conduct identification and response.


Click to view website >

Support for you

Please take care of yourself and seek the support you need. In an emergency situation, you can receive personal support at Health & Counselling Services. You may also have access to the Employee and Family Assistance program (EFAP).

Support your own well-being >