Centre for Teaching and Learning

Centre for Teaching and Learning
Centre for Teaching and Learning

Student Mental Health

The following was adapted from Queen's University's Identifying and Responding to Students in Distress (PDF, 3.29MB)

As Teaching Assistants/Fellows we come into contact with students with a variety of experiences, challenges and personal situations.  It can be hard to know what to do and where to direct your students to find help and support in times of crisis.

There are a multitude of resources available on campus for you and your students.  Many of these services provide support for students in crisis, as well as training and workshops for university staff – including TAs.

If you are concerned about a student, talk to your professor and the department.  They should be familiar with necessary procedures and resources, or contact the Student Wellness Centre.

Recognizing Distress – Tips from the Student Wellness Centre Website

How can we recognize and respond effectively to students in distress?

What to look for in students:

  • Significant changes in academic performance, including deterioration in quality of work, frequent missed assignments, excessive procrastination, or avoidance of classroom participation.
  • Increased class absences or tardiness.
  • Listlessness, lack of energy, of falling asleep in class.
  • Unusual or bizarre behaviours, including unexplained crying, laughing to self, very rapid speech, disorganized thinking, suspiciousness.
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain.
  • Complaints about physical symptoms, including nausea, stomach aches, headaches, or problems with eating or sleeping.
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene or dress.
  • Direct or indirect references to suicide or intention to harm or kill another person.
  • Changes or disturbances in personal relationships.
  • Visible signs of anxiety or depressed mood.
  • Talking explicitly about hopelessness or suicide.
  • Difficulty concentrating, difficulty carrying on normal conversation.
  • Social isolation, social withdrawal or excessive dependency on Dons, Professors, or TA's.
  • Excessive sleeping, internet use/gaming.
  • Significant changes in personal, sexual, or cultural identity.

If you think a student is in distress, here are some steps to take:

  1. It's okay to ask: Provided you are coming from a place of concern, you are likely to get a good response; remember it is better to be embarrassed about the asking or about the response than be remorseful about not having asked.
  2. Pick a good place and time to have the conversation: If you are going to have a conversation, choose to do so when and where the barriers to openings up are fewest. Seek a quiet, private moment to talk to the student. If the student appears very agitated of if there is a safety concern, it is best to ask a colleague to be present when you meet with the student.
  3. Say what you see but make sure to prioritize listening: Be specific about what is worrying you: “I’ve noticed you’ve been missing class, is everything okay?” Be patient and be prepared to listen.
  4. Be prepared for the possibility of denial of difficulty: Students, like the rest of us, are not always ready to talk about their concerns. If this happens, it means "not now". Respect that.
  5. Acknowledge their experience: Even if a student denies that there is a difficulty, it is important to acknowledge what they are experiencing. Offer hope and simply reassure them that you are concerned and want to help.
  6. "Keep the door open": If at all possible, the student should leave the interaction feeling it is safe to approach you again in the future.
  7. Remember your resources and offer a referral: If you are uncertain how to help, know that you can always consult the many resources on campus. Referring a student to the proper resources may be the most helpful. You may want to refer a student to the Counselling Service at extension 78264, where they can speak to the Director, Mary Acreman, the Cross-Cultural Advisor, Dr. Arunima Khanna, or the Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Chuck Vetere.

Situations requiring immediate response:

Direct or Indirect Reference to Suicide

Regardless of the circumstances or context, any reference to committing suicide should be taken seriously and a mental health professional should be contacted, for a consultation or for advice. Contact Student Wellness Services (SWS), ext. 78264 and ask to speak to a counsellor.

Indirect references to suicide may include the following:

  • Expressed feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or helplessness.
  • Expressed thoughts that the world, family, friends would be better off without them
  • Expressions of powerful feelings of guilt

Threats and Disruptive Behaviours

Any threat should be taken seriously. Contact Campus Security & Emergency Services, ext. 36111 for advice about what to do; please also speak to your department head, director or manager.

Physical violence causing bodily harm and specific threats must be reported immediately to Campus Security & Emergency Services, ext 36111.

Disordered Eating or Excessive Exercise

If a student shares (or you observe) concerns regarding excessive exercise or disruptive eating patterns such as excessive dieting, uncontrolled binge eating, and self-induced vomiting after eating, it is important that professional treatment be accessed as soon as possible. Contact Student Wellness Services, ext. 78264, and ask to speak to a counsellor.

Drug and Alcohol Misuse

If a student appears to be inebriated or you suspect drug use, it is important to attempt to refer the student for counselling.

In the case of an apparent drug overdose or severe drug reaction call Campus Security & Emergency Services, ext 36111, and ask them to call an ambulance. Contact Student Wellness Services, ext 32506 or 78264, and ask to speak to a counsellor about what else can be done.

Important Tips

LISTEN to the student in private when both of you have the time. Give the student your patient, undivided attention and let them talk with minimal interruption. Often just a few minutes of effective listening is enough to help a student feel cared about and more confident about what to do. If the student appears very agitated or if there is a safety concern, it is best to ask a colleague to be present when you meet with the student.

ACKNOWLEDGE the student's thoughts and feelings in a sensitive, compassionate way. Let the student know you understand what they are trying to communicate by reflecting back the essence of what they've said, for example: "it sounds like you're not used to such a big campus and you're feeling left out of things."

EXPRESS CONCERN without making generalizations or assumptions about the student. Be specific about the behaviour which gives you cause for concern. For example, "I've noticed you've been absent from class lately and I'm concerned," rather than "Where have you been lately?"

OFFER HOPE by reassuring the student that things can get better. Help them realize they have options and resources, and that things will not always seem hopeless.

HAVE A CULTURALLY OPEN WORLD VIEW Remember, there are differences in students' communication styles, experiences with living independently, help-seeking styles, and comfort with referral to counselling. Students sometimes find it difficult to admit to problems and may present them in an indirect way. It is wise to respond to stated concerns while listening actively for others, which may be more difficult for the student to express.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF Being a support person to a student in pain can be a very rewarding experience. There can also be a significant "cost to caring". Bearing witness to a person in pain can be a heavy responsibility that may cause you to feel some distress or sadness.

Additional Resource Links:

Student Wellness Centre (general site):

Student Wellness Centre – Urgent Help Resources:


Student Wellness Centre – Workshops for Staff and Faculty:


Other Campus Safety Services (First Aid and Walk Home):


Student Safety and Community Living (Division of Student Affairs):


On-Campus Resources: