Current research indicates that around one in five students is likely to experience high levels of psychological distress during their time at university. Some of these students may be noticeably distressed in class; some may communicate with you in ways that raise concerns; some may repeatedly miss scheduled contacts and activities. Some students experiencing mental health difficulties may approach you directly for advice and support, and some may disclose personal difficulties they are facing.

You may not be comfortable with the student’s display of emotion – which may take the form of tears and despair, or of false bravado, demands and aggression. The content of students’ disclosures can also be distressing – including accounts of sexual or domestic violence, experiences of conflict, trauma or loss, suicidal thoughts and overly-harsh self-criticism.

What is helpful to say in these situations (and what is not)?

Mental heath experts and experienced educators offer advice on what to say and do, and what not to say and do when a student appears to be distressed.

Hear from Dr Lisa Warren, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer, Monash University .
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Hear from Margot Fenley, Victorian College of the Arts.
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Some DOs and DONTs

While there is no single best approach for responding to distressed students, there are some broad principles that can be used to guide practice. Below are some “dos and don’ts” offered by experienced counsellors from several universities (University of NSW, University of Melbourne, La Trobe University).

  • If possible, choose a time and place that affords privacy and limited interruptions for your conversation
  • Try to listen attentively and patiently – it may be difficult for the student to find the right words to explain their situation; sit with the silence
  • Try to speak respectfully and take the student’s feelings seriously (“I can see that it is very upsetting for you”, “It’s very understandable that you would feel that way”)
  • Ask what help they would prefer and support the student’s agency (“Would you like me to call someone for you?” rather than “I’ll call the Counselling Service now and book you in”)
  • Suggest options, encourage them to seek appropriate support – gently (“It sounds like it might be helpful for you to talk with someone about this; what do you think?”, rather than “You need to see a psychiatrist or counsellor”)
  • Promise in advance to keep the information secret as you will need to breach confidentiality if you believe the student or someone else is at risk of harm
  • Analyse the student’s motives (“you only feel that way because…”; ‘Why are you coming to me with this just as the assignment is due?’)
  • Argue, lecture, ridicule or minimise their experiences (“you wouldn’t be in this position if you had…”; “I think you’re over-reacting”)
  • Ask questions that might imply judgement or blame – (“Have you done anything about this yet?”, “Why didn’t you tell someone before now?”)
  • Share your own experiences of being highly anxious or overwhelmed, or your own experiences of assault/abuse/trauma/grief/loss
  • Attempt to physically console or comfort a student by hugging them or holding their hand
  • The student needs to be motivated and ready to accept help – this cannot be rushed or forced
  • The student may have very good reasons (that you are not aware of) for deferring or declining formal support
  • Be clear about your role (what you can offer, what you cannot offer, what is appropriate; “I can help you work out a plan to catch up on the course work if you need to take some time off over the next couple of weeks, but I’m not the best person to help you manage the feelings/demands/events you are dealing with at the moment. Let’s talk about who might be able to help you with that…” [see next page])