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Helping a Student

If you know, hear, or see a student who may need assistance, reach out and offer your support.

Signs of Distress

Below are some commons 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)
  • Their creative work repeats themes of 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  • Appearing depressed or withdrawn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)
  • Threatening others
  • Poor impulse control
  • Any written note, artwork, or verbal statement that 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

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

1. 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

2. Supportive Communications


  • 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-judgmental
  • Determine what the students 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


3. Be Aware of Your Own Limitations:

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."


Do not take it personally If your offer for referral is rejected. 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 Ryerson’s counselling services are free and easy to access, and that the student can check it out to see if it is helpful, without any obligations to continue. Above all, keep the lines of communication open.

A referral to the Centre for Student Development and Counselling (416-979-5195) is a good option for you to consider if you are feeling anxious about helping the student, 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, Ryerson’s counseling center sets aside two “On Call” hours (typically at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.) 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 the first available appointment. Let us know the nature of the crisis that you are dealing with, and do feel welcome to walk your student to our offices if you think it would be helpful, and if your student agrees to your accompanying them.


Get help now !