Helping a Friend or Student in Distress

Are you concerned about a student or friend? Here's what to do in case of emergency, how to read signs of distress, how to interact with someone in distress, and resources you can access on campus and beyond.

Not sure what to do?  Contact Counseling Services 24/7 at 212-305-3400. 

Emergencies

  • Life-threatening emergencies: call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
  • Safety risk: Call 911 and Public Safety 212-305-7979. Safety risks include:
    • Threats to harm self or others
    • Physical violence
    • Stalking or harassing others
  • Immediate concerns about suicide: call Counseling Services 24/7 at 212-305-3400. You may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Signs of Distress

Personal

  • Poor hygiene or marked shifts in weight, grooming, etc.
  • Excessive fatigue or sleeping in class or an inability to sleep
  • Appearing disoriented
  • Exaggerated reactions (e.g., emotional outbursts of crying, panic, or being unexpectedly angry)
  • Withdrawal from previous level of contact with peers or faculty
  • Behavior or speech is out of context and/or bizarre
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behavior
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Stockpiling medications
  • Giving away prized possessions

Academic

  • Decline in work quality
  • Repeated absences or missed assignments
  • Repeated requests for extensions
  • In meetings the student repeatedly focuses on personal rather than academic concerns
  • Content of student’s work is disturbing or bizarre (e.g., violent, illogical)

Verbal

Expressing feelings of depression, isolation, hopelessness, and/or worthlessness, referencing suicide, explicitly or obliquely. Examples include:

  • "No one would miss me if I was gone.”
  • “I can’t stand being in so much pain any longer.”
  • "I just want to disappear."

Other

  • Peers are expressing concern about a student
  • The student has experienced a loss or trauma

Do's and Don'ts

The following are some considerations for what to say and what to avoid saying if you are concerned about someone you know. 

Do

  • Speak with the student privately
  • Focus on specific behaviors you have observed that concern you
  • Give them time to talk
  • Ask them how they been coping and explore what else they think might help in context of considering options
  • If able, set up a later time to check back in with them to follow up
  • If someone is talking about feeling depressed or hopeless, ask about suicide (e.g., “Sometimes when people are feeling bad it just feels like being alive is too hard.  Have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself or ending your life?”)  Asking about suicide does not give someone the idea and actually tends to make people feel that you are really hearing them and wanting to help
  • Get support for yourself. You may feel helpless, overwhelmed, scared, frustrated, and/or afraid of losing the relationship if you tell someone.
  • If a student discloses an instance of sexual assault or harassment, follow the Sexual Violence Response (SVR) protocol.

Don't

  • Don’t promise confidentiality (though you can note that our counseling services are confidential)
  • Don’t leave the student alone if you are concerned for their safety
  • Don’t meet in an isolated place or at a time others will not be around if you are concerned for your safety or theirs
  • Don’t rush into reassuring or problem-solving – often just listening and reflecting back what you hear will be all they need
  • Don’t avoid asking students questions about how they are doing out of a fear that you will embarrass them or put an idea in their head
  • Don’t involve yourself beyond your limits. There are trained clinicians on campus who are accustomed to speaking with students who are in great distress.  Your most important job is helping the student connect with these resources.