Referring Students in Distress

Something that might come up in the classroom environment or through in-person contact during office hours are disclosures of distress from students. The following suggestions are one way to support students in distress. If you already have a protocol that works for you, stick with that. But if you are uncertain what to do in cases of student distress, try the following approach of observe, engage, and refer. These three steps are taken directly from the TATP guide Supporting Students in Distress: Guidelines for Teaching Assistants at the University of Toronto.

Given that mental health and well-being of students is a shared responsibility of all campus community members, it is important that you become aware of how to identify warning signs, how to assist students who are in distress, and how to effectively refer them to various University of Toronto services and resources. There are people and services on campus to assist you in dealing with distressed students. Common reasons for consulting include determining the seriousness of a situation and how quickly it needs to be addressed.

Observe: What to Look For: Observing and recognizing when a student is in distress may be relatively straightforward when the signs are obvious. But when the signs are more subtle, it is more difficult, and you may feel reluctant to intervene. In such cases, you can look for a number of indicators in a student’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and academics.

Engage: What to Say: Regardless of our individual roles on campus, any one of us may have the opportunity to help prevent a student from finding themselves in crisis. As a TA, you may be in a unique position to help a student in distress. The question “Are you OK?” can be a simple and powerful way to start a conversation with a distressed student. Although you cannot reasonably be expected to solve the student’s problems, simply asking the student if you can help or if you can connect them to someone that they know can be very beneficial.

Refer: What to Do: There may be any number of circumstances in which it would be appropriate for you to refer a student for help. In such cases, help the student to explore sources of possible support. If you have any printed resources, offer those to the students to take away and have on hand for later. You can also offer to contact a resource, using the guide listed above, while the student is still in your office or to walk to the resource office with them.

Discerning the Urgency of a Situation: It is important that you are able to recognize when the situation needs more immediate attention than referring a student. If a student is expressing signs of distress, without posing a risk to self or others, a referral is a good course of action. If the issue seems more urgent, for example the student needs help but there does not seem to be imminent danger, you should contact the Crisis Response Team at 416-946-7111. Some signs of urgent distress may include: passive talk about harm to self or suicide (without a plan in place), expression of hopelessness, significant disturbances in thinking, or aggressive or impulsive behaviour. You may also be faced with emergency situations of student distress. Some signs of emergency distress include: talking about a plan to harm self or others, disruptive behaviour that seems out of control, or a situation that feels threatening or dangerous.

Follow Up: After a few days, follow up with the student to see how they are doing. This does not need to be an invasive set of questions, but can be something as simple as “It was great to see you back in class today. How have things been going since we last chatted?” Remember, however, that as a teacher, you are not trained, obliged, or allowed to act in the capacity of a counsellor, so know your own personal boundaries and talk to the disclosing student about their preferred boundaries as well if possible. If you are unsure about what the boundaries are, you are not alone. Knowing how much or how little to say to a student or disclose about your own similar experiences can be tricky.