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Referring a Student

Notice, Engage, Refer Guideline 

Review the “Notice, Engage, Refer + Debrief Guideline”, a guide that outlines what kinds of distress you may notice, how to engage a student in distress, and steps for referrals.

When to Refer

A referral to the CSDC may be indicated: if you are feeling anxious, if you don’t know what you can do for the student, if you recognize that your support is no longer adequate, or if you find that the responsibility you have assumed is weighing too heavily on you.

What to Do

Listen.  Take the student seriously.  Show concern.  Set clear limits. Consult with others. Refer the student.

What Not to Do

Don’t take on too much responsibility.  Don’t deal with a crisis alone.

What to Say

Make a general statement such as: “You seem to be pretty upset about this and I think you could use some help in sorting out these issues.  I’m concerned about you and I would like you to consider talking to one of our counsellors in our Centre for Student Development and Counselling”.


Urgent Referrals

Each day two hours (typically at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.) are allocated for students who urgently need to be seen. To access an ON CALL appointment on behalf of a student in crisis, please call our reception desk at 416-979-5195 to arrange for the first available spot and let us know the nature of the crisis with which you are dealing. Do feel welcome to walk the student to our offices if you think that would be helpful.

Students arriving after 3:00 pm will be offered a 15-30 minute appointment for the purpose of identifying immediate safety risks and developing a safety plan. At that time, students will be booked for a followup one hour appointment at their earliest convenience to develop a comprehensive plan regarding their needs and next steps in accessing appropriate supports.


Common Signs and Signals that a Student May be in Distress


Behavioural Changes:

  • Repeated absences from class
  • Missed assignments/exams/appointments
  • Repeated requests for special accommodation (e.g., extensions on assignments)
  • Themes in creative work which reflect despair, hopelessness, isolation, violence, or rage
  • Disorganized or erratic performance
  • Direct statements indicating a personal or family problem


Physical Changes:

  • Unkempt appearance with a lack of personal hygiene
  • Appearance of excessive fatigue, lack of sleep
  • Indications of substance abuse (e.g., smelling alcohol or marijuana)


Personality Changes:

  • Sudden change in attitude (e.g., withdrawal, becoming unusually quiet, exhibiting  unprovoked anger or hostility)
  • Anxiety
  •  Ongoing expressions of sadness or tearfulness


Safety-risk Behaviours:

  • Appearing depressed or withdrawn
  • Expressions of despair, hopelessness, helplessness
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Self-injurious behaviours (e.g., cutting)
  • Threats against others
  • Poor impulse control
  • Any written note, artwork, or verbal statement which has a sense of finality or suicidality to it


Other Changes:

  • Bereavement (death of significant person) or loss (ending of relationship, failure in class)
  • Other students or peers expressing concern for the student
  • Your own sense that something is wrong


The presence of one indicator alone does not necessarily mean that the student is in distress. However, that is not always the case. It is always important to check on your concerns. That said, the more indicators that are present, the greater the likelihood that the student would benefit from a referral to a personal counsellor.


Responding to Students in Distress 


Make Contact:

  • Talk with the student in person
  • Stay calm and express your concern for the student
  • Listen carefully
  • Take the student seriously
  • Use supportive communication


Supportive Communication:


  • Be patient, give the student the opportunity to talk
  • Let the student know you are listening via your verbal and non-verbal responses
  • Set aside your biases
  • Be non-judgemental
  • Determine what the student needs from you


  • Minimize the student's feelings
  • Express disapproval of the student's thoughts or feelings
  • Ask "why" questions
  • Be defensive or personalize what the student is saying


Be Aware of Your Own Limitations:

  • Consult with one of the  counsellors at the Centre for Student Development and Counselling 416-979-5195
  • Do not take on too much responsibility
  • Do not deal with a crisis alone
  • Do get other people involved


What to Say:

Make a general statement such as: "You seem to be fairly upset about this and I think that you could use some help in sorting out these issues. I am concerned about you and I would like you to consider talking with one of the personal counsellors at the Counselling Centre."

If the referral is rejected, do not take it personally. Listen to the student's concerns about seeking help. Normalize the referral process, making it clear that your wanting the student to see a counsellor does not mean that you think that there is something wrong with the student. Emphasize that the Ryerson Counselling Service is free and easy to access, and that the student can check it out to see if it is helpful. Keep the lines of communication open.


If a student is in crisis, support is available. Monday-Friday, 9AM-5PM you can call the Centre for Student Development and Counselling and explain the nature of the concern. See here for a full list of options for supporting a student in a crisis situation.