Responding to a student in distress - a guide for staff

If you are with, or aware of, a student who is distressed – or, indeed, any student who may benefit from specialist mental health support – this page is for you.

There is one simple document – just one side of A4 in length – that we want all student-facing colleagues across the University to be aware of. We call this our 3 levels model - responding to a distressed student model.

We have deliberately kept this to one side of paper, distilling the information you need down to three simple levels.  This is your guide on what to do in three types of situation, depending on the level of risk and complexity involved.

Although the model is straightforward, it is comprehensive.  There is no situation which involves a distressed student which does not fall into one of the three categories.

Your job, as the staff member who is aware of the student’s distress, is to determine which of the three levels is most appropriate and follow the guidance set out for that level. 

In the vast majority of cases, level 1 (“Supported Signposting”) is the appropriate response.  The other two levels are there to cover more complex, more infrequent situations.  Level 2 (“Seek Advice”) is for complex issues that may have some urgency, but which are not emergency situations.  Level 3 (“Imminent Harm/Emergency”) is for emergency situations, which many staff may never encounter with a student.

Our ‘3 levels model - responding to a distressed student’ model is designed to ensure that the student receives the support they need.  Once a student completes the online registration form for the Mental Health & Wellbeing Team, they will be contacted with a tailored offer of support within two working days. The team offers a range of ways to help, including self-help resources and one-to-one sessions with a counsellor or a mental health practitioner. 

There is often a waiting list for some of the team’s services.  However, when a student is placed by the team on a waiting list for an appointment, it is because, based on the information the student provided in their registration form, they have been assessed as being able to wait.

If Security is involved in an individual ‘Level 3’ case or incident, then, once the initial incident is managed, Security will pass the details onto the Mental Health & Wellbeing Team to ensure that the team can follow up and offer the student longer-term support if needed.

As well as using the ‘3 levels’ model to ensure you are signposting or referring things correctly, there are other things you can do to help when you are talking with a distressed student:

  • Express empathy.  Empathic statements such as “I can imagine that would feel really overwhelming” or “I can see how upsetting this is for you” can be very helpful in connecting with a student’s distress and showing support.  Colleagues working in our Mental Health & Wellbeing Team are often asked whether it is okay for a staff member to tell a student that they are concerned about them.  The answer is an emphatic “yes!”.  If you are concerned about a student’s welfare or mental health, find an appropriate time to let them know that you are concerned about them, explain why you’re concerned, and ask them some gentle questions about how they are getting on.
  • But do not take the empathy too far.  If you can feel yourself starting to experience the student’s distress, almost as if it were your own, it is important to regain objectivity.  Otherwise, not only do you risk burnout, you may also lose the ability, as the staff member in the room, to make clear judgments about how best to signpost the student.  Showing too much empathy can also leave a student feeling unsupported and uncontained – if, for example, they observe you getting emotional or overly involved in their distress.
  • Use active listening skills.  Active listening skills can have a very positive impact when you are with someone who is distressed.  Think about your body language.  Keep a calm and still body posture.  Use summarising and paraphrasing to check you are understanding the student’s concerns.  There are plenty of resources online, such as this video, if you would like an introduction to active listening.
  • Once you have understood the student’s concerns, explain, gently but clearly, what you can help them with, within your own role, and what types of support you will need to signpost them to other services for.
  • Be clear how long you’re able to talk.  It is okay to be clear with a distressed student about the time you have available to talk to them – for example, by saying “I only have 15 minutes now, so can we book a follow-up discussion on this day/time…”
  • Direct a student to the various self-help resources we provide.  These include Big White Wall, a 24/7 digital mental health and wellbeing service which the University has arranged for all our students (and staff) to access free-of-charge.  Anyone with a wlv.ac.uk email address can register at Big White Wall to access digital self-help resources and online support.
  • Try to avoid sending any students, but particularly a student who is already distressed, bad news on a Friday afternoon (e.g. negative assignment feedback or other information you know they will not want to hear).  This can avoid further distress when the student is unable to talk to someone at the University about their situation over the weekend.
  • After your conversation with the student, email them to reiterate the links they need to register online with the Mental Health & Wellbeing Team (www.wlv.ac.uk/MHWregistration) and to access contact information for crisis and out-of-hours services (www.wlv.ac.uk/needhelpnow).  By emailing these links, you can be sure the student knows where to turn for specialist support, should they require it.  As well as making things clear for the student, this also helps you to boundary your role.  By telling the student where to access specialist mental health and out-of-hours support, you are making it clear that it is not your role to provide these types of support.

It is vital we all show compassion and provide guidance when we are with someone who is distressed. However, for the benefit of the student and for you as a member of staff, establishing clear boundaries and connecting students to the right guidance and support is very important too.

If you are providing too much support to a student – for example, if you are available to provide support out-of-hours, or if you are getting into in-depth discussions with a student about their mental health when this is not your role to do so – this can easily discourage a student from seeking the right specialist support that they need. 

Here are some tips for establishing and maintaining helpful boundaries in your work with students:

  • When you are concerned about a student, it may feel supportive to say, “Contact me any time.” However, phrases like this are best avoided, as they can quickly lead to student over-reliance.
  • Do not share your personal mobile number with students.
  • Never feel drawn into guaranteeing complete confidentiality to a student, perhaps as a way of trying to get a student to open up.  If a student asks you to promise to keep your conversation confidential, tell them that, while you will always treat information sensitively, you can never promise any student confidentiality because, rarely, there may be circumstances in which you may need to share information with others.
  • Be clear with students about when you are available to respond to student queries.  Avoid emailing students outside of your agreed usual working hours.  Add your usual working hours to your email signature and make it clear to students that your emails are not checked outside of your working hours. Be clear about those times when you are available, e.g. SAMS bookable appointments on a Wednesday afternoon.  You can also set your out-of-office message to come on automatically when you will not be responding to emails (e.g. 5pm to 8am).  You can also mention, in your out-of-office message, the link to sources of crisis/out-of-hours support: www.wlv.ac.uk/needhelpnow.

The University’s 3 Minutes to Save a Life training is open to all staff to explore how to respond to a distressed student with confidence and compassion. Although there is a focus in the session on responding to a student who might have suicidal thoughts, the skills that covered in the session are useful when working with a student who is experiencing any level of distress.

Staff Briefings took place in October 2019, to introduce the new guidance and give an overview of the changes to the Mental Health & Wellbeing service.

If you were unable to attend or would like to revisit the information, you can view:

There is also a podcast style audio recording (mp3 9,379k) to give a more succinct run through of the 3 Levels model, and advice on what you, as staff, need to do when responding to a student in distress (run time approx. 22 mins).