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Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress


Members of the RIT Community work together toward maintaining an environment of support, respect and caring to contribute to student success.  Whether you are staff, faculty, a student or family member of a student at RIT, we all play a role.  

Counseling and Psychological Services provides consultation to faculty, staff, family, or friends who may be concerned about a student’s wellbeing, as well as evaluation and treatment for students who are in distress. 

Many people have questions and concerns about reaching out to a student who may be suffering-these concerns include fear of embarrassing the student, invading privacy, or not knowing how to approach and follow through to help.  However, evidence about violence, suicide and other concerns to campus safety suggests students feel cared for, recognized and more safe when others express concern and take action to help. 

Contacting a campus resource for consultation or questions is always an option. Consult with Counseling and Psychological Services, or other campus partners to ask the right questions, gain further information about how to respond to a student, or to request that someone outreach to the student.    

3 steps you can take to contribute toward wellness and safety for the campus community:

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1. Be Aware of Indicators for Student Distress

Academic Indicators

  • Uncharacteristic changes in a student’s performance
  • Increased or repeated absences
  • Serious references to suicide or violence in verbal statements or writing
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Frequent, repeated requests for accommodations or special consideration

Behavioral Indicators

  • Trouble regulating emotions such as sadness or anger
  • Having difficulty working in groups or together with peers
  • Isolation from peers (staying in room, avoiding interaction with others
  • Crossing the boundaries of others, violations of respect of others
  • Disruptions in sleep, difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite, problems with food
  • Messages or posts to social media reaching out for help
  • Noticeable changes in appearance or hygiene
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2. Respond and Reach Out

If a student confides in you, or if you are truly concerned about a student, reaching out early may be the key to prevention, connection and making a difference in a student’s life. 

If you notice signs of severe distress in a student, the best step to take is contacting Public Safety.  Public Safety will assess the situation, respond and may contact the most appropriate resource for you.  For other resources about responding to urgent mental health situations, see Get Help Now

Tips for supporting a student directly:

  • Chose a private place and a safe time for you and the student to talk
    “Is now an ok time for us to talk or can we set aside another time?”
  • Listen with care and attention, reflect what you hear
    “I heard you say that you have been depressed lately- tell me more”.
  • Focus on the facts and concerns that you see
    “I am worried that you haven’t been responding in class as actively as you usually do”
  • Ask what steps may have been taken so far by the student to address the problem
    “What has been helping you to deal with this problem so far?” or, “what are some of the things in your life that help you cope with this?”
  • Express willingness to help-
    “I’m here for you” or “How can I help you get what you need?”
  • Help the person identify next steps for sources of support-
    “what could we do to get you some more assistance with this”
    “seems like you have been struggling with sleep-what about checking with the Student Health Center on that?”
  • If possible, offer to connect and follow up with the student, plan a time to check in about how things went.
    “What if we walked together to the Student Health Center or Counseling & Psychological Services so you can make an appointment - I know where it is and I can check with you next week if you made the appointment”. 
  • Know that it is ok to just talk, hear the student out, and just offer a space for the student to be heard. 
    Sometimes that is all that’s needed. 
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3. Follow though

Make a referral to Counseling and Psychological Services

•    Encourage the student to visit our office, providing them with information that helps them to connect with us and sharing any positive experiences that you may have from the past. 
•    Assist the student in connecting with our office. You could offer to assist by making the first call to schedule a counseling appointment together or you could escort the student to the Counseling and Psychological Services office, located on the second floor of the August Center.

If you are unsure of how or when to refer a student, we encourage you to contact our office for a brief consultation. 


Follow up with the student

Check in with the student later about whether they were connected with the appropriate resource. Ask about their experience. Offer to advocate for them if needed.


Plus IconHow do I refer a student of concern to Counseling & Psychological Services?

You can encourage the student to come to CPS and provide information about the location, phone number, how to make an appointment, and any positive experiences you may have had with CPS.

It might also be helpful to assist the student in making the first contact with CPS.  You could offer to assist by making the first call to schedule a counseling appointment together or you could escort the student to the Counseling & Psychological Services office in the August Center.       

 If you are unsure of how or when to refer a student, you can always contact CPS for consultation.  

Plus IconWhat is a mental health crisis?

Although the definition of crisis is different depending on the uniqueness of each individual, an emotional crisis is generally defined as an intense and painful response to a difficulty that exceeds the ability of the person to respond with their own healthy coping skills.  Responding to crisis is critical when the individual has experienced:  

  1.  suicidal or homicidal thoughts or impulses;  
  2. sexual or physical assault;  
  3.  hearing voices or otherwise misperceiving reality;  
  4. any major disruption in ability to function  
  5. experiencing an overwhelming loss or tragedy  
Plus IconWhat can I expect after referring a student to Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS)?

Check in with the student later about whether they were connected with the appropriate resource.  Ask about their experience.  Offer to advocate for them if needed.   

Request consultation or follow-up from CaPS if you have questions.  

If the student follows through and attends an appointment at CaPS, the therapist meeting with them will encourage them to understand, sign and review consent forms that may allow us to speak with referral sources and other important supports in the student's life.  If the student signs a consent to speak with you, future collaboration about how to best support the student can take place.  

In some emergencies or urgent situations, a counselor may not require written consent by the student, and may consult with you for purpose of assessing and planning for the student's safety. 

Plus IconWhat happens during a crisis appointment?

Crisis Appointment Steps

1.   Assessment 

During a crisis appointment, a therapist will talk with you to assess the situation and provide immediate support. Sometimes talking through a crisis situation with a therapist will be all that is needed. 

2. Safety Planning:

After assessing for your immediate safety needs and wellness, the therapist will also help you to plan for your future safety and wellness, and a plan for linking to further services if needed.  This may include a plan for self-care, a plan for seeking family or other natural supports.  We will help you decide the best course of action to meet your needs.

If you are concerned about the safety and well-being of someone else, we will work with you to develop a plan of action to address your concerns.      

3. Follow-up Plan:

The therapist will help you decide what to do in the longer term to help prevent future crisis, to link you to any needed resources, information or referrals.  The therapist may give you some ideas to try at home, some information to read or some suggestions for how to respond if the problem comes back.