Helping Students in Distress

Helping Students in Distress is Everyone’s Responsibility

The college years can be very stressful for many. In the contemporary climate of competition and pressure, some students adequately cope with these stresses, but others find that stress becomes unmanageable and interferes with learning. Marshall University faculty and staff play an especially important role in being aware of and responsive to students who may appear to be having challenges. You have an important relationship with each of your students: this relationship can be a powerful vehicle that you can use to encourage someone to seek help.

At the same time, without mental health training, many may feel unprepared to address signs of distress or problematic behavior in their students. The following is intended to provide helpful guidelines for dealing with such situations. In addition, the Behavioral Intervention Team welcomes your questions on any issues regarding behavior that concerns you. Please contact the Office of Student Conduct at 304-696-2495 or

Thee success of this process and the BIT hinges on community commitment to reporting concerns.

What can you do to help Students in Distress?

When you observe behavior that points to ongoing distress, addressing it with the student can go a long way toward supporting and encouraging the person to get the help they need. Don’t assume that someone else in the student’s life will intervene. You are always welcome to contact the BIT or the Office of Student Conduct about your concerns before you talk with the student. Student Conduct can assess the appropriate referral needed for the student.

If appropriate, talking with the student in private about what is upsetting to them may help them feel comfortable and more open with you. Be direct about your concerns, focusing on the student’s behavior and your concerns for their welfare. Listen to the student’s concerns while acknowledging the limits on your ability to help. You must also be aware of your own comfort level. Some people might feel very comfortable talking with a student about the loss of a loved one or some other distressing situation. Others panic at the sight of tears and don’t know what to do to be helpful. Know your own boundaries and refer to the Counseling Center when necessary. Let your student know that additional help is available through the Counseling Center.

You may feel that talking with and encouraging a distressed student provides the boost that the student needs. You may find that a student is grateful to know about services in the Counseling Center. You may find that the student follows through on your referral and you observe a positive change in them. On the other hand, you may encounter situations that continue to concern you: where students are not responsive to your concern, the behavior persists or escalates, and your own internal “red flags” are raised. In any of these situations, contact the BIT. The BIT is here to assist you in these problematic situations or in situations where you are uncertain.

Check out these specific tips below:

Show you care, connect on a feeling level, listen.
  • “I’m concerned about you and noticed you haven’t been sleeping, eating, going to class, etc.”
  • “How are you feeling?”
  • Reflect back their feelings and paraphrase: “What I hear you say is that you are in a great deal of pain and feel hopeless.”
  • “I’m glad you called.”
  • Listen with respect. Individuals in distress want understanding and care.
Ask about suicide directly.
  • “Sometimes when people feel sad, they have thoughts of hurting or killing themselves.  Have you had such thoughts?”
  • “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
  • “Have you considered suicide?”  “How would you go about it?”  “When would you do that?”
  • Remember, asking about suicide does NOT put the idea in people’s minds.
Get help.  Explore options.  Offer resources.
  • “What would help now?”  “Who can, who usually helps?”  “How can I help?”
  • Get assistance.  Avoid trying to be the only lifeline for this person. Seek out resources even if it means breaking a confidence.
  • “How would you feel about going to the Counseling Center?  Let’s call right now.” or “I’ll walk over with you to see a counselor.”
  • Call the Dean of Students Office at 304-696-6422 during regular business hours.
  • Call 304-696-HELP (4357)  if this is an acute crisis. University Police will respond.
What Not To Do
  • Do not promise to keep the person’s thoughts of suicide confidential.
  • Do not leave the person alone in cases of talk of potential suicidal thoughts or if the student is in crisis.
  • Do not offer simple solutions.