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Helping a person in distress (quick guide)

We highly recommend that you read and print this quick guide to helping yourself or someone when in distress (PDF). It is meant to help campus community members recognize, respond to and refer those around them who need assistance. Displayed and shared around campus, it also becomes a powerful tool to raise awareness around mental health and wellness issues.

The guide is translated into the most common languages on campus. 

Select topic to expand. Relevant topics available for Professors and Parents:

Identifying and Assisting Students in Distress

The University of Ottawa is committed to ensuring the health and well-being of its students and understands the importance of promoting good mental health in enabling students to achieve their full academic potential. Faculty and staff members are often in a position to identify and assist those students who may be experiencing emotional distress. This document is designed to assist the University community in recognizing the signs of emotional distress and to provide its members with guidelines on how to respond appropriately.

How to identify a student in distress

Signs to look for include:

  • Stated need for help
  • Changes in behaviour: Changes in usual behaviour may indicate psychological distress.)
    • Withdrawal from social interactions or academic work
    • Disruptive behaviour, unexplained outbursts or irritability
    • Noticeably rapid or slow speech
  • Marked changes in mood
    • Change in mood from one class to the next
    • Expressed feelings of hopelessness or despair
  • Obvious changes in appearance
    • Noticeable weight gain or loss
    • Disheveled appearance, poor hygiene
    • Absence of facial expression
  • Difficulty communicating or apparent distortion of reality: This may indicate a severe psychological problem that requires assessment and treatment of the student by a professional.
    • Irrational conversations
    • Disturbing material in academic assignments
    • Suspiciousness, a constant feeling of being watched
  • Significant changes in identity or relationships
    • Changes in family circumstances or a break-up
    • Illness or death of a family member or close friend
  • Health concerns: Health issues may impede a student’s progress and increase stress levels.
    • Long-term illnesses
    • Frequent short-term illnesses
    • Disordered eating
  • Serious academic concerns
    • Missed, late or incomplete assignments
    • Disorganized presentation of information
    • Plagiarism or use of unauthorized aids
  • Violence
    • Recent experience involving assault or abuse
    • Violence towards self or others

What to do when a student is in distress

If you are concerned about a student and you are unsure, uncomfortable or unable to intervene:

If you decide to approach a student you are concerned about, or if a student reaches out to you for help:

  1. Listen carefully as the student describes the situation.
  2. Ask questions to clarify whether you understand the student’s specific needs.
  3. Acknowledge and express concern.
  4. Offer hope and reassure the student that things can get better.
  5. Discuss options and resources available and suggest that the student make an appointment with SASS Counselling and Coaching or with Health Services.
  6. Give printed information from the website or write out the name and phone number of the service(s).
  7. Arrange a follow-up with the student to show you care and determine whether the referral was effective.

If the student appears hesitant or reluctant to make use of services:

  • Offer to contact the service yourself while the student is still in your office.
  • Offer to sit with the student during the initial phone call.
  • Offer to accompany the student to the appointment, if appropriate, and if you’re comfortable doing so.


When inviting students to discuss their concerns with you, it’s important to be clear about the limits of your ability to keep the information confidential. Even if a student insists, never promise absolute confidentiality. Rather, let them know that you’ll respect their privacy to the best of your ability but that certain situations require you to inform others about the situation.

You should not withhold information about a student if:

  • You have concerns about the student’s physical safety.
  • You have concerns about the safety of others.
  • You believe the student is not competent enough to care for himself or herself.
  • You have concerns about the neglect or abuse of a minor.
  • The student tells you something that involves an academic or criminal offence.
  • You are concerned about a situation involving a minor student (under the age of 18).

The University of Ottawa is committed to upholding the principles of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). In situations where a student engages in behaviour that places the student or others at risk, the University is committed to taking steps to protect the student as well as the larger community. If you’re concerned about a student, it’s important that you communicate your concerns to the appropriate office or service, such as Protection Services, so staff can use their expertise and training to evaluate the situation and make recommendations to any other professionals or services.

Taking care of yourself

Those of us who encounter students in distress can experience a range of emotions based on our own unique experiences and attitudes towards mental health. We can feel a deep sense of satisfaction in trying to help or we can experience frustration and anxiety. We may sometimes even feel threatened by events as they unfold. If you experience exhaustion, sadness, anxiety, trouble sleeping or irritability, consider seeking support and counselling. Free confidential assistance is available through the University of Ottawa Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

View the "Identifying and Assisting Students in Distress" section in PDF format (identifying-students-distress.pdf)

The Student Who is Anxious

University students often encounter a great deal of stress during the course of their academic experience. Many of these students do not know how or where to get help. In your role as an employee of University of Ottawa, you may come into contact with student who suffers from anxiety. Being able to recognize symptoms of anxiety and knowing how to intervene, can help you respond appropriately to such situations.

What is anxiety

Anxiety is a normal response to a perceived threat to one‘s well-being or self-esteem. For some students, the cause of anxiety will be clear, but for others it may be difficult to determine. It is our experience that anxiety is very often the result of the intense academic competition among students. Anxiety can be generalized across a range of situations, or it may be situation-specific (e.g. test anxiety, social anxiety, public speaking anxiety). Anxiety, when it goes untreated, can result in ‘panic attacks’. However, the treatment for anxiety has a high success rate.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Regardless of the cause, one or more of the following symptoms may be experienced:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart beat
  • hyperventilation
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Cold clammy hands

The student may also report:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive worrying
  • Irrational fears
  • Feeling overwhelmed by stress
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Sleeping disturbances

What you can do to help

  1. Remain calm and talk slowly
  2. If possible, provide a safe, private and quiet environment until the symptoms subside
  3. Be clear and direct
  4. Provide reassurance
  5. Offer to facilitate the connection with Counselling Service (562-5200)

What is not helpful

  1. Minimizing the perceived threat to which the student is reacting
  2. Overwhelming the student with information
  3. Asking too many questions
  4. Arguing with the student‘s irrational thoughts
  5. Becoming anxious or overwhelmed
The Student with Poor Contact with Reality

University students often encounter a great deal of stress during the course of their academic experience. Many of these students do not know how or where to get help. In your role as an employee of University of Ottawa, you may come into contact with students who may be experiencing psychosis. Psychosis is a serious mental condition involving a disruption in normal brain functioning that may result in some loss of contact with reality. Poor contact with reality can cause bizarre and disturbing behavior. When dealing with a student who may have lost contact with reality, it is important that you know how to recognize some of the symptoms of psychosis and how to be most helpful.

Some symptoms of psychosis

  • Hearing voices that no one else hears or seeing things that aren't there
  • Believing that others can influence your thoughts or that you can influence the thoughts of others
  • Believing that you are watched, followed or persecuted by others
  • Inappropriate or complete lack of emotions
  • Speech that make no sense (eg. ideas are disconnected and disjointed)
  • Strange behavior (eg. laughing inappropriately, becoming upset without apparent cause)

What you can do to help

  1. Talk in a calm and soft voice while stating your concern and verbalizing that the person needs some help. Respond with warmth and kindness
  2. Acknowledge the feelings or fears without supporting the misperceptions (e.g., "I understand you think someone is following you, right now I don't see anyone and I believe you are safe")
  3. Speak to the student in a direct and concrete manner regarding your plan for getting him/her to a safe place
  4. Accompany the student to the Health Service (100 Marie Curie, 1st floor) for a medical/psychiatric consultation, or
  5. if the student is uncooperative, call Protection Service (5411) for assistance, or
  6. consult with a professional at SASS-Counselling (562 5200)

What is not helpful

  1. Play along, "Oh, yes, I hear the voices."
  2. Arguing with unrealistic thoughts
  3. Assuming the student understands you
  4. Agitating the student with questions or pressure the student to explain their behavior
  5. Expect customary emotional responses
The Student with Suicidal thoughts and/or tendencies

University students often encounter a great deal of stress during the course of their academic experience. Many of these students do not know how or where to get help. In your role as an employee of University of Ottawa, you may come into contact with a suicidal student. Being able to identify clues that suicidal risk may be present and knowing how to intervene, can help you respond appropriately to such situations.

Suicide Myths

Myth: Suicide typically happens without warning. 
Fact: Most people who attempt or commit suicide give some indication of their intentions.

Myth: Suicidal people want to die. 
Fact: Suicidal people are typically ambivalent about dying and will often seek help immediately after attempting to harm themselves.

Myth: Asking people about suicidal intentions will "put the idea into their heads" and increase the risk of an attempt. 
Fact: Asking direct, caring questions encourages emotional ventilation and shows that someone cares and is willing to help.

Myth: There is no correlation between drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. 
Fact: Alcohol, drugs, and suicide often go hand in hand. Even people who do not typically drink or use drugs may use substances shortly before killing themselves.

Myth: Mental health professionals are the only people who can help a suicidal person. 
Fact: Professional counseling is very important in reducing the risk of suicide, but nonprofessionals also play an important role in detection and early intervention. It is important that students, faculty, and staff who may interact with a suicidal student (i.e., everyone) know what to do in such circumstances.

Clues to suicide risk

  1. Making statements such as:
    • "I wish I were dead"
    • "Sometimes I wish a bus would run me over"
    • "Everyone would be better off without me"
    • "If (such and such) happens (or doesn‘t happen), I might as well kill myself"
    • "If I was gone tomorrow, no one would notice, no one would care"
  2. Showing symptoms of depression (see The Depressed Student)
  3. Showing symptoms of psychosis (see The Student with poor contact with reality)
  4. Recent significant loss such as:
    • Death of a loved one
    • Serious relationship break-up
    • Academic failure/rejection
    • Serious illness/disease
  5. Self-destructive behavior such as:
    • Self inflicted injuries
    • Binging on drugs or alcohol
    • Sexual acting out/unsafe practices
  6. Morbid preoccupations/activities such as:
    • Frequent discussions/writing about death
    • Giving away prized possessions
    • Writing goodbye letters
  7. Other important clues:
    • Previous suicide attempt(s)
    • History of suicides in the family or in the circle of friends
    • Sudden unexplained recovery from severe depression
    What you can do to help
  1. If the clues are present, talk openly about suicide: 
    Ask: "Has it gotten so bad that you sometimes think about killing yourself?" 
    Ask: "Have you ever tried to kill yourself in the past?"
  2. Express your desire to help. Let the student know that you are worried and concerned and that you will help him/her get connected with professional help.
  3. Stay calm. Remember that you are not responsible to fix the student‘s problem or to keep him alive. Your role is to provide a caring presence and to facilitate the connection with professional help.
  4. Be a good listener. Let the person talk. Allow expression of feelings.
  5. Stay with the student as long as it takes. If you perceive that the risk is high, don‘t leave the student alone until professional assistance has been secured.

What is not helpful

  1. To avoid the subject of suicide when clues are present.
  2. To blame, criticize, threaten or give a moral lesson.
  3. To try to talk the student out of doing it.
  4. To become too personally involved
  5. To fall into the "confidentiality trap"
The Student Who is Depressed

University students often encounter a great deal of stress during the course of their academic experience. Many of these students do not know how or where to get help. In your role as an employee of University of Ottawa, you may come into contact with students who suffer from depression. When dealing with a student who may be depressed, it is important that you know how to recognize some of the symptoms of depression and how to be most helpful.

What is depression

Depression is a very common illness. It is defined as a state of persistent sadness and lack of energy. This must not be confused with "the blues" which occur normally when facing a difficult situation or in reaction to excessive academic pressure. Major depression is a mood disorder that disrupts normal psychological functions. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks or months. The most serious risk associated with depression is suicide. The risk is particularly high when depression goes undetected and untreated. However, early intervention usually yields positive results. Treatment for depression is effective for about 80% of depression sufferers.

Symptoms of depression

Clinically depressed persons will exhibit multiple symptoms for a long period of time.

  • Decrease in energy level.
  • Persistent sadness.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Increasing levels of irritability and/or negativity.
  • Concentration problems.
  • Change in sleep patterns.
  • Change in appetite and eating habits.
  • Loss of interest in activities formerly enjoyed.
  • Feelings of hopelessness and despair.
  • Poor personal hygiene.
  • Loss of self-esteem.
  • Thoughts of suicide

What you can do to help

  • Express your desire to help. Let the student know that you are worried and concerned and that you will help him/her get connected with professional help.
  • Reach out more than halfway and encourage the student to discuss how she/he is feeling.
  • Be a good listener. Let the student talk. Allow expression of feelings.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask about suicide (e.g. "Sometimes, when they feel unwell enough for long enough, students can start having thoughts of suicide. Has this ever happened to you?")
  • Offer to facilitate the connection with Counseling Service (562-5200).

What is not helpful

  • Minimizing the student's feelings (i.e., everything will be better tomorrow)
  • Bombarding the student with "fix it" solutions or advice.
  • Being afraid to ask whether the student is feeling suicidal.
  • Ignoring remarks about suicide.
The Student Who is Being Disruptive

University students often encounter a great deal of stress during the course of their academic experience. Many of these students do not know how or where to get help. In your role as an employee of University of Ottawa, you may come into contact with students who are being disruptive or behaving aggressively. This information is designed to provide you with appropriate, effective, and legally sound principles for dealing with disruptive student behavior. The goal is to help you more confidently, fairly, and safely address incidents of disruption in a manner which supports the person while discouraging the inappropriate behavior.

Examples of Disruptive Behavior

  • Constant questions or interruptions which interfere with the instructor's presentation or class discussions.
  • Inappropriate use of e-mail messages or cell phones (in the classroom)
  • Inordinate demands for time and attention from professors or university employees.
  • Poor personal hygiene (e.g., noticeably offensive body odour)
  • Use of profanity, pejorative language, intimidation, etc.
  • Being intoxicated during class time or in meetings
  • Threats to harm oneself or others
  • Verbal/Physical violence (e.g., shoving, grabbing,, yelling)

Note: It is important to remember that even such conditions as physical or psychological disabilities are not considered a legitimate excuse for disruptive behavior.

What you can do to help

  1. Deal with the disruptive behavior immediately.
  2. Consider talking with the student in a private area. Preferably with a colleague or your supervisor attending the meeting.
    • show support for the student, yet,
    • calmly but firmly inform the student that the behavior is disruptive (or threatening) and ask that it has to stop.

    Example: "I can hear how upset you are and how you feel nobody is listening, but you are talking too loud right now. I want to help you, but please lower your voice. We can’t continue to talk if you threaten me."

  3. Offer some hope (ex. facilitation of referral to appropriate resources)
  4. If the disruptive or threatening behavior persists, immediately contact Protection Services (5411)

What is not helpful

  1. Ignoring the behavior. It will likely cause it to increase in intensity.
  2. Taking the behavior personally.
  3. Touching the student (may be interpreted by the agitated student as an assault)
  4. Getting into an argument or shouting match.
  5. Pressing for explanation of the student’s behavior.

If you are concerned about a student but are uncertain about the appropriateness of a referral, feel free to call the manager of Counselling and Coaching, Geneviève Brabant (ext.6885).


Many consider their university years among the best of their lives. Nevertheless, the university experience can be, at times, highly stressful and filled with many unforeseen challenges.

As a parent, you want to know that your son or daughter is well cared for in times of need.

Professionally trained counsellors at the Counselling and Coaching Service offer emotional and psychological support to all students who may feel overwhelmed by stress or who "just want to talk".

Counselling is free and readily available, and is provided in a safe, comfortable and confidential environment (Information about confidentiality).

If you have questions about the support available to your son or daughter at the University of Ottawa, or you are concerned about his or her well-being, please feel free to contact us by phone at 613-562-5200 or by e-mail at

Should you ever feel that your son or daughter may present an imminent danger to self or others, you should immediately contact University of Ottawa Protection Services at 613-562-5800 ext. 5411.

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