Steps to take to respond to a person in distress

Collection of photos that represent supportEveryone goes through different ups and downs in their life and different people handle their challenges in different ways. Sometimes you might notice someone is struggling with their mental health and want to help, but it can be really hard to know how, or if, you should reach out to them.

When trying to help a someone, it is important to remember the limitations of your own knowledge. While it is perfectly normal for you to want to help the person who is struggling and offer advice, you are not a counsellor and shouldn’t feel like you need to be. Remember there are lots of resources on campus you can direct a person to.

When responding to someone needing support, it is important to understand the following steps:

  1. Recognize the indicators of mental illness
  2. Respond to the person in a way that is appropriate to the situation at hand and the existing relationship you have with that person
  3. Refer the person to the appropriate resources so that they can access the services available

1. Recognizing the signs of someone who might be struggling

There are many different signs of mental health concerns, including: a sudden disinterest in or absence from classes or work, patterns of perfectionism, deterioration in physical appearance, excessive fatigue, noticeable self-harm marks, unusual inability to make eye contact, statements indicating distress or intent to self-harm, difficulty controlling emotions, sudden social withdrawal, and expressions of hopelessness.

2. Responding to a person who is 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 someone

  • Validate person's concern.
  • Inform them of the available resources and helplines. Provide a link to Campus Wellness or Occupational Health and ensure them that the 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.

3. Where to refer people on campus


For urgent student concerns during office hours, contact Counselling Services (519-888-4567, ext. 32655) or Health Services (519-888-4096). The following resources can be reached 24/7:

  • EmpowerMe
  • Good2Talk (1-866-925-5454)
  • Here 24/7 (1-844-437-3247)
  • Grand River Hospital (519-749-4300)
  • Police Services (519-888-4567 ext. 22222)

Faculty or staff

  • Occupational Health 519-888-4567 ext. 40538 or 519-888-4567 ext. 40551
  • Employee Assistance Program 1.800.663.1142
  • Here 24/7 (1-844-437-3247)
  • Grand River Hospital (519-749-4300)

Mental health training options

Counselling Services offers a broad range of suicide intervention and mental health training programs. Our goals are to raise campus mental health awareness, reduce mental health stigma, and support early intervention for those in need within our Waterloo campus community. Visit the Campus Wellness website for more information about training.