How to support a student

Oftentimes faculty or staff members are the first to notice a student might be struggling or in distress. You can provide useful information to assist the student in getting help. You should not take on the role of parent or counsellor or try to diagnose a student.

 Identifying and responding to students in distress

distress flow chart

When responding to students needing support, it's important to understand the steps you can take to ensure they get the support they need. We've created an accessible Crisis Navigation Tool (PDF) to help you determine whether a student is in distress and the next steps to take based on the situation.

Download and print Crisis Navigation Tool (PDF) for quick and easy access, or follow the detailed steps below.


Step 1: Identification: Is the student in distress? 

  • Have they reported significant problems or stressors to you?
  • Have you noticed signs of distress?
    • increased levels of anxiety, irritability, or sadness,
    • declining classroom attendance or participation, decreased quality of academic work,
    • concerning changes in personal hygiene or appearance,
    • significant behaviour or mood changes.
  • Have others expressed concerns to you about this student?

If you answered NO to all of these behaviours, no immediate action is required. Monitor the situation by staying connected with the student and keeping an eye on them.

If you answered YES to any or all of these behaviours, continue to Step 2.

Step 2: Determine the type of situation (critical emergency, potentially urgent or non-urgent) and follow their associated actions

Type of situation Actions to take Additional notes

Critical emergency: Student's behaviour is:

  • threatening to harm themselves or others,
  • highly disruptive,
  • incoherent or uncontrollable,
  • directly or indirectly referencing suicide.

On-campus: call 519-888-4911.

Off-campus: call 911.

Inform someone in your department and request a debrief if needed.

Potentially urgent: things to look out for:

  • you have not heard from the student despite numerous check-ins,
  • concerning changes in personal hygiene or appearance,
  • significant behaviour or mood changes.

Schedule a support and consultation meeting with the Campus Wellness, counselling services team at 519-888-4096.

If you are unable to call, please email

During your SCHEDULED consultation, the following may occur:

  • The counsellor will create a plan with you to support follow-up with the student, recognizing the confines of your role.
  • The counsellor may contact the student directly in addition to your follow-up to further assess and provide resources and support.
  • You may be directed to contact Special Constable Services at 519-888-4911 (if the student is on campus) or the Waterloo Regional Police Services non-emergency number at 519-653-7700 to share your first-hand information.
Non-urgent: None of the above behaviours are present.
  • Listen, show concern, and be non-judgmental.
  • Ask questions to determine which information or referral would be helpful.
  • If the student is unwilling to accept a referral respect the decision, and encourage them to stay in contact with you.
  • Provide Campus Wellness contact information: call 519-888-4096 - press 1 for health services and 2 for counselling services.

After hours support 

The following resources are available 24/7, 365 days a year.

For a larger list of resources both on and off-campus please visit our mental health support resources.

Tips for speaking with someone you think might be struggling

  • Meet in a private place where you won’t be interrupted
  • Express your concern in a positive tone and point out specific behaviours that concern you
  • Ask how things are going for the person
  • Listen with empathy and without judgment, encourage them to elaborate
  • Remember, opening up can be difficult and emotional for both you and the person you are speaking with
  • Avoid promising to keep the person's concerns a secret. If the person expresses something that might indicate a safety risk, you should always contact someone else who can help
  • Ensure you let the person know about the different options to get help

How to respond to a distressing email from a student

  • Validate the student's concern.
  • Inform them of the available resources and helplines. Provide a link to Campus Wellness and ensure them that our services are confidential.
  • If you think the student might be at risk of harming themselves, encourage them strongly to go to the hospital and contact someone they trust in person.

Mental health training options

The University offers online training about mental health and how you can respond and refer students needing further support, which you can find at More Feet on the Ground.

You can also participate in in-person training, for more information see our Training page.

Print and digital resources and handouts

You can request printed materials to have on hand in your offices, visit our Request Materials page for more information. Resources include takeaway postcards for our department and Mental Health Support Resources wallet cards. 

Download this resource if you need help with your mental heath: Do you need help with your mental health? (PDF)

Staff and faculty resources

If you are a faculty or staff member who is seeking personal health care or mental health support, please see the Employee Assistance Program or contact Occupational Health.