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. Academic functioning, social relationships, and emotional well-being can all suffer when mental health problems arise.

Tufts faculty and staff members (including FYAs, CDAs and TAs) are in a unique position to identify and help students who are in distress. This may be especially important for students who cannot or will not turn to family or friends. Anyone who is seen as caring and trustworthy may be a potential student resource in times of trouble. 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.

Tufts University has developed this document as a guide to assist faculty and staff in recognizing certain signs and behaviors that might indicate that a student is in distress and requires assistance.  In addition, this guide sets forth specific options for intervention and for referral to campus resources.  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, Fletcher's Office of Student Affairs or TUPD at the contact information listed in the right-side panel on this page.

In particular, the Tufts University Counseling and Mental Health Service (CMHS), 617-627-3360, the Office of the undergraduate Dean of Student Affairs (DOSA), 617-627-3158 and the Fletcher Office of Student Affairs 617-627-0413 are available to consult with you about how to respond to students in distress. 

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.

The following list identifies signs which may indicate that the student is distressed and would benefit from assistance, 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 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 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 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

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

Tell the student what you know about the referral person or service in order to help them feel more comfortable.

Be sensitive

Be sensitive to how a student’s personal and cultural contexts affect their attitudes about mental health concerns and counseling.

Remember it's their decision

Remember it’s their decision whether or not to seek counseling, except in emergencies. Sometimes students need time to consider your suggestions for getting more help.  However, if you know that a student made an attempt on their life while enrolled at Tufts University, or shortly before enrolling at Tufts University, or has stated plans or intentions to die by suicide, you must alert CMHS, DOSA, or TUPD.

Follow up

Follow up with the student later to see whether they followed your referral suggestion. Even if the student did not take this step it will show your continued interest.

Know your limits

You don’t have to try 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.

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 the Fletcher Office of Student Affairs at 617-627-0413.

The DOSA staff is trained to respond in a variety of ways to student crises, and has established protocols for determining whether further intervention is necessary. That office also has the authority to require a student to receive an evaluation at the Counseling and Mental Health Service, if necessary.

After hours, there is always a Student Affairs Administrator On-call to respond to emergency situations at 617-627-3030.

Emergency Situations

When is it a mental health emergency?

  • 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 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 TUPD at 617-627-3030 or x76911. Ask them to page the on-call counselor. Give the police your name, the name of the student in question, your phone number, and your location.

If the student expresses intentions or threats to harm others:

  • Take care of your own safety first.
  • Call TUPD immediately at 617-627-6911 or x76911.

Counseling and Mental Health Service


Medford-Somerville Campus: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., year-round
Fenway Campus: Hours vary; call for more information.


Counseling is free for all Tufts undergraduates and those Tufts graduate students covered by the comprehensive Health and Wellness fee.


To schedule an appointment, call 617-627-3360. In order to facilitate a referral, sometimes concerned faculty and staff members call while the student is in their office or escort a student to the counseling center in person.


Counseling is confidential, and information can be released only with a student’s permission, except in certain emergency situations. However, we can always listen to and consult with you regarding your concerns about students. Feel free to ask students directly if they have followed up with a referral you have made.


  • Consultations to faculty, staff and others about student mental health concerns
  • Brief individual counseling for Tufts students
  • Groups and workshops
  • Psychiatric services
  • Animal Assisted Therapy
  • 24-hour emergency coverage for student mental health crises
  • Referral services for specialized or continued counseling


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