How to Help Students in Distress

A Guide for Tufts Faculty, Staff, and TAs

Hands in a circle in the sand

Tips for Recognizing Student Distress

Tips for Effective Communication

Making a Referral to CMHS

When a Student Doesn't Respond to Outreach

Emergency Situations

Stress is a fact of life for undergraduate and graduate students at Tufts, who are typically juggling academic demands in the context of many other new and challenging experiences. For some students these pressures can become overwhelming and unmanageable and may precipitate or exacerbate mental health problems.

Tufts faculty and staff (including FYAs, CDAs and TAs) are in a unique position to identify and help students who are in distress. Your expression of interest and concern may be a critical factor in supporting a student’s well-being or even saving a student’s life.  The following offices are available to consult with you about how to respond to undergraduate and graduate students in distress:

  • Counseling and Mental Health Service (CMHS): 617-627-3360
  • Office of the Undergraduate Dean of Student Affairs (DOSA): 617-627-3158
  • Fletcher’s Office of Student Affairs: 617-627-0413  

PLEASE NOTE: If a faculty or staff member knows that a student has made an attempt on their life while enrolled at Tufts, or shortly before enrolling at Tufts, or has stated plans or intentions to die by suicide, then the faculty or staff member must alert CMHS, DOSA, or Fletcher's Office of Student Affairs.

Tips for Recognizing Student Distress

Students may come to you directly to discuss a concern, but often difficulties are expressed indirectly. Sometimes signs of distress are evident through academic performance or classroom behavior and include the following, especially if the signs are persistent, severe, or represent a marked change: 

Academic indicators
Poor performance or preparation in class or program activities
Excessive absences or tardiness
Marked inattentiveness or sleepiness in class
Attending class under the influence of alcohol or drugs
Communication of personal problems in written assignments, artwork, or outside of class
Other indicators
  • Noticeably depressed, sad, or apathetic mood
  • Hyperactivity or very rapid speech
  • Noticeable anxiety or panic
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene
  • Dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Disruptive or inappropriate behavior
  • Signs of loss of contact with reality
  • References to feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Statements or actions about harm to self or others

Tips for Effective Communication

A student who is distressed often doesn’t know how to seek services, or may be hesitant to do so. You can make a critical difference by talking with a student about your concerns in a caring manner. Whether you reach out to a student or a student approaches you directly, here are some suggestions for how to help.

  • Talk. Talk to the student in private when both of you have time and are not rushed or preoccupied. Just a few minutes of effective listening on your part may be enough to help the student feel cared about as an individual and more confident about what to do.
  • Be direct. Be direct by expressing your concerns in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms. For example, “I notice you’ve been absent from class a lot” or “You seem to be having a hard time lately – I’m concerned about you.”
  • Avoid judging. Avoid judging, evaluating, or criticizing, even if the student asks your opinion. This can help a student open up and be more receptive to getting help. It is important to respect the student's value system, even if you don't agree with it.
  • Listen. Listen to the student’s thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, non-threatening manner. Don’t feel that you have to be an expert or offer a solution. The most important thing is to listen.
  • Give hope. Give hope that there are ways through their current difficulties without minimizing their current distress. Let the student know that they are not alone and that there are many resources and people who can help them.

Making a Referral to CMHS

Many students say that an important reason they sought counseling was because someone else encouraged them. Here are tips for making a referral:

  • Point out that we all need help at some point and that seeking help is a sign of strength rather than weakness. Remind students that getting professional help for other problems (e.g., medical or legal) is good judgment.
  • Tell the student what you know about the referral person or service in order to help them feel more comfortable.
  • To facilitate a referral, sometimes concerned faculty and staff call while the student is in their office or escort a student to CMHS in person.
  • Be sensitive to how a student’s personal and cultural contexts affect their attitudes about mental health concerns and counseling.
  • Remember that—except in emergencies—it’s their decision whether or not to seek counseling. Sometimes students need time to consider your suggestions for getting help.  
  • Follow up with the student later to see whether they pursued your referral suggestion. Even if the student did not take this step it will show your continued interest and give you a chance to repeat your recommendation and concern.
  • You don’t have to help a student alone. Faculty and staff are always welcome to call the Counseling and Mental Health Service or the Dean of Student Affairs Office or Fletcher's Office of Student Affairs to discuss concerns about a student. You can call an office directly or contact the Tufts 24/7 Help Line at 617-627-3400. The Help Line will route you to the appropriate support, which could be CMHS, DOSA, or the Tufts Department of Public Safety. 

When a Student Doesn’t Respond to Outreach

If you have concerns about a student who is difficult to reach or unresponsive to suggestions about counseling, you may also contact the Dean of Student Affairs Office (DOSA) at 617-627-3158 or Fletcher’s Office of Student Affairs at 617-627-0413.  Staff in these offices are trained to respond in a variety of ways to student crises and have established protocols for determining whether further intervention is necessary. They also have the authority to require a student to receive an evaluation at the CMHS, if necessary. After hours, there is always a Student Affairs Administrator-On-Call to respond to emergency situations; call 617-627-3030 and ask to speak to the Administrator-On-Call.

Emergency Situations

When is it a mental health emergency?

When one or more of the following are present: 

  • Statements about suicidal thoughts, intentions, or attempts
  • Imminent threats or aggressive behavior toward others
  • Incoherent or disjointed speech
  • Loss of contact with reality, including hallucinations and delusions

What to do in an emergency

If the student expresses intentions or threats to harm or kill themselves:

  • Do not leave the student alone.
  • During business hours (M – F, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.): Call CMHS at 617-627-3360.
  • Evenings/weekends: Call 617-627-3360 and follow the prompts to reach the Counselor-On-Call. 

If the student has harmed or attempted to kill themselves:

  • Do not leave the student alone.
  • Immediately call the TUPD emergency line at 617-627-6911 or x76911.

If the student expresses intentions or threats to harm others:

  • Take care of your own safety first.
  • Immediately call the TUPD emergency line at 617-627-6911 or x76911.

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