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Helping a Student in Emotional Distress

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Students face immense pressures and stresses in their lives and, as their instructors, we may not know how to support them through their struggles. Given our role in students' lives, it is important to know how to assist students and direct them to the appropriate resources. We want our students to feel supported during their time at Stanford, and when an instructor expresses concern in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way, it can make all the difference for a student's experience.

Instructors may have varying levels of comfort with helping students in distress. You may wish to offer some explicit language in your syllabus and on your first day of class about your philosophy towards discussing personal issues. The way that you foreground your involvement in the class may impact the extent to which student turn to you if they are in distress.

On this page, we will offer a list of signs that may indicate that your student may be experiencing some distress, concrete steps you can take to engage with the student and show your concern, and finally, some resources available at Stanford and in the Silicon Valley region to help your student.

See the Stanford Red Folder, A Guide for Faulty/Staff Addressing Student Well-Being

How do I Recognize When a Student is in Distress?

According to the University of Michigan's Counseling and Psychological Services handbook on "A Guide for Helping Students in Distress," some signs that a student is in distress include:

  • A change from consistently passing grades to unaccountably poor grades
  • Excessive absences especially after a pattern of consistent attendance
  • Unusual or markedly changed patterns of interaction (e.g. unusually quiet, unusually avoidant of interaction, unusually talkative or anxious)
  • Actions that may suggest the student is unsuccessfully managing stress (e.g. falling asleep during class, swollen or red eyes, dramatic change in personal dress and/or hygiene, outwards signs of lethargy, hyperactivity or rapid speech)
  • Responses to feedback on written or spoken work that are clearly inappropriate or are a marked change from behaviors exhibited earlier in the course
  • Repeated requests for special consideration, such as deadline extensions
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response that is clearly inappropriate to the situation

What Can I Do for a Student in Distress?

If you choose to approach a student who you suspect is in distress, here are a few suggestions for steps you can take:

  • Arrange for a time to talk to your student in a quiet and private space. Identify a space where you will not feel distracted so that you can  be sure to give your student your undivided attention. For a student in distress, it is important for them to know that you are actively listening to them.
  • Be direct, specific, and nonjudgmental in expressing your concern about your student. Use language that makes clear that you're not blaming the student for their behavior. For example, instead of asking, "Why have you come to every single class session late?" state, "I've noticed you've been arriving to class later than usual, and I'm concerned."
  • Listen actively and sensitively. Some students may just want to talk; you can communicate that you're listening by nodding, making eye contact, and repeating back what the student has said (e.g. "It sounds like adjusting to life here has been challenging.") You may want to ask students open-ended questions, but they may not respond. You should not feel obligated to find solutions to their problems, but show that you want to support them.
  • Refer the student to student health services on-campus. Exposing your student to the resources available to them and emphasizing the fact that seeking out help is a sign of strength will show that you are invested in supporting them. Tell the student what you know, if anything, about the services available to them.
  • Refer the student to student health services off-campus. Some students may want alternatives to the options available on-campus. Be sure to mention to them they can see a local provider; you can share a list of local providers that accept Cardinal Care insurance.
  • Follow up with the student. Make sure that you show the student that you're concerned about them by following up a later date and asking how they're doing.
  • Let the PWR Associate Director know about your student. The PWR Associate Director can help you determine whether appropriate contacts should be made with Advising or Residential Education. Please see the Protocol for Addressing Student Issues for more to this end.

What Can I Do If I Suspect a Student Is In An Extreme Crisis Situation?

If you believe that a student may be in imminent danger of harm, immediately call the police at 911 (dial "9" on your office phone before 911 to dial outside of Stanford).

What are the Resources Available for Students in Distress?

See the Stanford Red Folder, A Guide for Faculty/Staff Addressing Student Well-Being

Confidential Support Team

Located at the Vaden Health Center, the Confidential Support team provides free and confidential support to Stanford students impacted by sexual assault and relationship violence. Walk-in hours are Mondays-Fridays from 8:30 A.M.-5:00 P.M., and there is also a 24/7 hotline students can call: 650-725-9955

To learn more, visit Vaden's website about Sexual Assault resources for students.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

Students can make appointments to meet one-on-one with a professional counselor at the Vaden Health Center. Appointments are available Mondays-Fridays from 8:30 A.M.-5:00 P.M.

To learn more, visit the CAPS website.

See also a recording of a May 5, 2017 presentation from CAPS with Bina Patel and Inge Hansen (Note that is only accessible by Stanford users).

Well-Being at Stanford

Maintained by the Vaden Health Center, the Virtual Well-Being at Stanford website provides resources that support the well-being of Stanford students, including a list of resources that address different communities and areas of well-being and access to well-being coaches. For more info email

YWCA Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence Crisis Line

The Silicon Valley SWCA provides advocacy and crisis counseling for survivors of sexual assault and their family members and friends. They offer immediate, in-person crisis assistance and emotional support and can be contacted through their 24/7 hotline: (800) 572-2782

To learn more, visit the Silicon Valley YWCA website.

The Bridge

The Bridge is Stanford's peer counseling and support program. Located at the Rogers House (581 Capistrano Way), students can walk in for support every day from 9:00 A.M.-midnight. The Bridge also has a 24/7 support line: (650) 723-3392

To learn more, visit The Bridge's website.

Mental Health Providers Outside Stanford

Occasionally students might want to pursue counseling or mental health care off-campus. This list of local providers accepts Cardinal Care insurance.  Students can also contact CAPS if they need help finding an off-campus provider.

Please note: If you feel there is an immediate threat to a student’s safety, please call 9-911.