Faculty Guide for Supporting Students

Supporting Students in Distress: A Guide for Faculty

October 4, 2013

Dear Colleagues,

We all know well the pleasures of getting to know our students in and out of our classrooms. We see them on an almost daily basis and engage in conversations that are often amongst the most consequential of their lives. We also know that many of our students struggle from time to time, for family, emotional, financial, and medical reasons; they share this information with us, ask for our guidance, and sometimes seek help from us that is beyond what we can reasonably provide. Although the College has a wealth of assistance to offer students, faculty members may be unsure how to refer students to appropriate resources and may not be aware of who on campus is ready to help both students and faculty navigate some of these difficult situations.

With this in mind, some faculty members have worked with members of the Division of Student Life to produce this concise guide to working with students in distress. The goal of this guide is: to provide a quick overview of the range of issues that may come up in students’ lives; to describe some signs that you might see in the behavior of your students that are clues to the presence of these various problems; and to give you some practical guidance in taking the first steps to address problems. No one will expect you alone to solve the complex problems that keep some of our students from achieving their educational goals at Wellesley, but we all can work together with colleagues across campus to address these problems effectively. In producing this guide, our hope is to help you help students, so that we can all remain engaged in the challenging academic work that is what brings us together.

Please take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the contents of this guide, and keep it handy for easy referral as the year proceeds. And if you have any questions or suggestions, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Thank you for your care of our students, 


Overview of Guide

Wellesley College promotes a challenging learning environment in which students are encouraged to think critically and apply themselves to reach their highest potential. This challenging environment can provide opportunities for positive growth and also feel stressful at times for students. Wellesley’s close-knit community affords faculty and students the opportunity to work closely together and develop influential and important relationships. Because of this, faculty may be among the first aware when a student is struggling either personally or academically, either through observations of changes in a student’s behavior or because a student chooses to disclose personal problems. As faculty are in a unique position to notice and assist students in the early stages of situational or other emotional distress, the Wellesley College Division of Student Life, in consultation with faculty from several academic departments, has created this guide to assist faculty in recognizing and responding to students in distress. This guide outlines the nature of the “stress-to-distress” continuum, indicators of student distress, pathways for supporting students, and available on-campus referral resources. The goal of this guide is to help faculty become more knowledgeable in dealing with students in distress and to become more informed and effective responders. Specifically, it identifies signs of distress and outlines faculty options for responding to students who are struggling. It also provides contact information for the many resources on campus for supporting student wellbeing.

An appendix is available providing further information regarding many behavioral and emotional concerns that faculty might observe from students. The appendix includes information about and tips for responding to general concerns. 

Quick Reference Guide: Responding to a Student in Distress


If the student:

  • Seems markedly different in demeanor and attitude,
  • Is demonstrating a decline in academic performance,
  • Is not showing up to class or is habitually late,
  • And/or is unresponsive or unreceptive to your efforts to help,
  • AND your concerns about the above behaviors are NOT urgent: 

Contact the student’s Class Dean by email or phone at 781.283.2325. If the student’s particular Class Dean is not available, another Dean will talk to you. The Class Dean’s office is open weekdays from 8:30-4:30.

Class Deans: Susan Cohen, John O’Keefe, Joy Playter, Jennifer Stephan, Lori Tenser.

You may also contact the Counseling Service at 781.283.2839 for a consultation or refer the student directly to Counseling. The Counseling Service is open weekdays from 8:30-4:30.


If the student:

  • Is noticeably withdrawn, upset or disengaged in class,
  • Tells you in person, via email or by phone that she is having a really hard time, is stressed out and doesn’t know what she is going to do,
  • And/or comes to your office hours in tears or visibly distraught,
  • AND you think she needs attention and support before the end of the day (or night):

During regular business hours: Contact the Class Dean (781.283.2325) or call the Counseling Service (781.283.2839). Do not rely on email.

On evenings or weekends: Call Counseling Service after hours phone support (781.283.2839) or Campus Police (781.283.5555). Campus Police (or the counselor on-call) can arrange for the student to be checked on.


If the student:

  • Talks or writes about imminently hurting herself or others,
  • Is acting or speaking irrationally,
  • Appears to be unreasonably angry,
  • And/or makes an overt threat towards you or others:

Stay with the student and call Campus Police immediately at 781.283.5555. Campus Police will respond 24/7 and will inform the Counseling Service when appropriate.


Recognizing Students in Distress

Understanding the Stress-to-Distress Continuum

The college years can be times of discovery and excitement. At the same time, the developmental tasks that are particular to the college years can be taxing and difficult. Stress responses can be triggered by positive experiences such as falling in love or acing an exam, or by negative experiences such as unexpected loss, disappointment, or a traumatic event. As a positive influence, stress can compel us to action, move us into our “peak performance zone,” and bring a sense of exhilaration to our lives. As a negative influence, it can result in fatigue, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. In other words, stress is what our bodies and minds experience as we adapt to a continually changing environment.

Stress occurs on a continuum. To maintain healthy tension, a person must balance the right amount of stimulating challenges with a healthy diet, consistent sleep schedule, and regular exercise and stress management techniques. While most students would prefer to be in the peak performance zone every day, this is not humanly possible. However, by maintaining healthy tension, an individual can access the extra burst of energy and focus needed to achieve peak performance when needed most (e.g., on the day of an exam).

When students perceive that a situation, event, or problem exceeds their resources or abilities, and/or experience a stressor as threatening or harmful, their body reacts automatically with the “fight or flight or freeze” response. If this response persists over time or results from a sudden significant change, it can lead to imbalance of a healthy tension state and problems such as heart palpitations, insomnia, disordered eating, fatigue, panic, and feelings of hopelessness or depression. In some cases, a belief or perception that stress is harmful can compound the negative impacts it can have on a person’s physical and mental state. Reaching out to others at these times can help students normalize their reactions to stressful events.

Excessive, prolonged, or chronic levels of stress can lead to imbalance, fatigue and physical, emotional and social breakdown. This imbalance may result in difficulty concentrating, disorganization, forgetfulness, deterioration in quality or quantity of work, irritability, and other exaggerated personal traits. To re-establish balance, students need to strengthen their stress management practices, learn new coping strategies, and seek support from others.

If stress is left unchecked, symptoms will worsen, causing physical complaints such as pain and tension, illness, and feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, or depression. A student may be so despondent that she skips class or a job, socially withdraws, or takes unnecessary risks with personal safety. At this breakdown point, it is essential for the student to seek professional medical or counseling assistance.

Recognizing Students in Distress

As faculty members, you may be the first to notice a student who is experiencing difficulty. However, faculty often have little training in counseling and mental health issues. You do not have to take the role of a counselor or diagnose a student. You need only notice signs of stress or distress and communicate these to the appropriate office. In many cases, a direct conversation with the student will allow you to gather a little more information, express your concern and offer resources and referral information.

Often, there are indicators that a student is experiencing distress long before a situation escalates to a crisis. To assist our students in maintaining their well-being and maximizing their intellectual growth, it is important to identify difficulties as early as possible. The presence of one of the following indicators alone does not necessarily mean that the student is experiencing severe distress. However, the more indicators you notice, the more likely it is that the student needs help. When in doubt, consult with the Counseling Service or a Class Dean.

Indicators of Distress

Typically, issues indicated in items 1 through 4 below should be addressed by speaking directly to a student or consulting a campus professional. Indicators of safety risks and emergencies as described in item 5 below will require more immediate response and intervention by the Counseling Service and/or Campus Police. (Section 2 of this guide offers more detailed information on all of these pathways for responding to students in distress.)

  1. Academic indicators
    • Repeated absences from class or lab
    • Missed assignments, exams, or appointments
    • Deterioration in quality or quantity of work
    • Extreme disorganization or erratic performance
    • Written or artistic expression of unusual violence, morbidity, social isolation, despair, or confusion; essays or papers that focus on suicide or death
    • Repeated seeking of special provisions (extensions on papers, make-up exams) 
    • Patterns of perfectionism: e.g., can’t accept themselves if they don’t get an A
    • Overblown or disproportionate response to grades or other evaluations
  2. Behavioral and emotional indicators
    • Direct statements indicating distress, family problems, or loss
    • Angry hostile outbursts, yelling or aggressive comments 
    • More withdrawn or animated than usual
    • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness; crying or tearfulness
    • Expressions of severe anxiety or irritability
    • Excessively demanding or dependent behavior
    • Lack of response to your outreach
    • Shakiness, tremors, fidgeting, or pacing
  3. Physical indicators
    • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene
    • Falling asleep in class repeatedly; excessive fatigue, exhaustion
    • Statements about change in sleep or appetite
    • Extreme changes in weight
    • Noticeable cuts, bruises or burns
    • Frequent or chronic illness
    • Disorganized speech, rapid or slurred speech, confusion
    • Unusual inability to make eye contact
    • Coming to class bleary-eyed or smelling of alcohol
  4. Other factors
    • A hunch or gut level feeling that something is wrong
    • Concern about a student expressed by another student, peer or colleague
  5. Safety Risk and Emergency Indicators
    • Indicators of a possible safety risk:
      • Written or verbal statements that mention despair, suicide or death
      • Severe hopelessness, depression, isolation and withdrawal
      • Statements to the effect that the student is “going away for a long time”
      • Demonstrated inability to care for oneself
    • Indicators of an emergency situation:
      • Physical or verbal aggression that is directed at self, others, animals, or property
      • Unresponsiveness to the external environment; i.e. the student is:
        • Incoherent or passed out
        • Disconnected from reality, exhibiting bizarre behavior, or showing signs of psychosis
        • Demonstrating extremely disruptive behavior

If a student is exhibiting any of the safety risk indicators above, she may pose a danger to herself and should be assessed by a member of the Counseling Service. In these cases, you (or another faculty or staff member) should stay with the student while you call the Counseling Service at 781.283.2839 (during business or after-hours). A Counseling Service staff member can help you determine next steps.

When indicators lead you to believe the situation is an emergency, i.e. there is an imminent threat to self or others, immediate and decisive intervention is needed. If you are concerned about immediate threats to anyone’s safety, call Campus Police immediately at 781.283.5555.

Responding To and Referring Students in Distress

You have several options once you have identified a student in distress and have differentiated between urgent and non-urgent issues. For issues that do not require immediate intervention due to safety concerns, you can speak directly with the student, and/or consult with a campus professional.

Whether you choose to speak with the student first or directly consult with a campus professional, your willingness to recognize and respond to indicators of student distress is an important intervention for students’ well-being, even when getting involved might feel inconvenient or time-consuming. However, if you begin to feel that a situation is taking too much of your time and investment, please consult with the student’s Class Dean or a Counseling Service staff member, who can help you refer the student for appropriate support.

Below are some specific tips and action steps for making contact with students in distress, referring these students for support, and consulting with other campus professionals.

Making Contact with a Student

If you have a relationship or rapport with the student, speaking directly to the student may be the best option. Begin your conversation by expressing your concerns about specific behaviors you have observed. You will not be taking on the role of a counselor. You need only listen, care, and offer resource referral information.

  • Meet privately with the student (choose a time and place where you will not be interrupted). If you are concerned about being alone behind closed doors with a student, ask the student for permission to close the door partially. It’s best to establish a semi-private setting. This will help avoid interruptions by others, while allowing room for you to easily seek assistance from other faculty or staff if needed.
  • Ask, “How are things going for you?” • Set a positive tone. Express your concern and caring and offer hope that things can get better.
  • Be aware of your nonverbal communication, including tone of voice, facial expression, body posture and eye contact.
  • Point out specific signs and behaviors you’ve observed. (“I’ve noticed lately that you...”)  
  • Listen attentively to the student’s response and encourage the student to talk. (“Tell me more about that.”)
  • Allow the student time to tell the story. Allow silences in the conversation. Don’t give up if the student is slow to talk.
  • Ask open-ended questions that deal directly with the issues without judging. (“What problems has that situation caused you?”)
  • If there are signs of safety risk, ask if the student is considering suicide. A student who is considering suicide will likely be relieved that you asked. Asking the question will not put ideas in her head. Ask: “Have you thought about hurting yourself? Have you had thoughts about ending your life?”
  • Restate what you have heard as well as your concern and caring. (“I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. Your concerns are…”)
  • Ask the student what she thinks would help. (“What do you think you need to do to get back on a healthy path?”)
  • Support the student in developing concrete action steps.
  • Suggest resources and referrals. Share any information you have about the particular resource you are suggesting and the potential benefit to the student. (“I know the folks in that office and they are really good at helping students work through these kinds of situations.”)
  • Avoid making sweeping promises of confidentiality, particularly if the student presents a safety risk. Students who are suicidal need swift professional intervention; assurances of absolute confidentiality may get in the way. You can say: “I care about your well-being and safety, so I can’t agree to keep this to myself. I need to talk to someone who can help us think this through.” Legally, conversations between faculty and students are not considered confidential.

Referring a Student for Support

Explain the limitations of your knowledge and experience. Be clear that your referral to someone else does not mean that you think there is something wrong with the student or that you are not interested. The referral source has the resources to assist the student in a more appropriate manner.

  • Provide name, phone number, and office location of the referral resource or walk the student to the Counseling Service if you are concerned that she won’t follow up. If you choose to walk the student to the Counseling Service, call ahead so that a staff member can be made available to meet with the student. If the student agrees, you can also call the Counseling Service while the student is in your office to make an appointment for her.
  • Normalize the need to ask for help as much as possible. It is helpful if you know the names of staff people and can speak highly of them. Convey a spirit of hopefulness and the information that troublesome situations can and do get better.
  • Realize that your offer of help may be rejected. People in varying levels of distress sometimes deny their problems because it is difficult to admit they need help or they think things will get better on their own. Take time to listen to the student’s fears and concerns about seeking help. Let the student know that it is because of your concern for her that you are referring her to an expert.
  • End the conversation in a way that will allow you, or the student, to come back to the subject at another time. Keep the lines of communication open. Invite the student back to follow up. You can say: “In situations like these, I like to check back in with students in a couple of days. How would you like me to contact you?”
  • If you have an urgent concern about a student’s safety, stay with the student and notify the Counseling Service (781.283.2839) or Campus Police (781.283.5555), or, during business hours, walk the student to the Counseling Service right away.
  • The Counseling Service offers same day, urgent appointments during business hours for mental health emergencies. Call the main office at 781.283.2839 to make one of these appointments for a student. After-hours, an on-call counselor is available by phone (781.283.2839) for consultation.
  • Please do not rely on email as a way to contact the Counseling Service regarding a student whom you are immediately concerned about, especially if there is a safety risk involved. The Counseling Service generally avoids electronic communication containing reference to a student's personal information in an effort to safeguard client privacy.

Unless the student states that she is suicidal or may be a danger to others, the ultimate decision to access resources is the student’s. Students will vary in their willingness to openly acknowledge or discuss their distress, and may even be entirely uncooperative in response to your suggestions and attempts to support her. If the student says, “I’ll think about it,” when you offer referral information, and you are not concerned about her safety, that’s okay. Let the student know that you are interested in hearing how she is doing in a day or two. Consult with someone on campus—e.g. Class Dean, etc.— about the conversation, and follow up with the student in a day or two. In cases where a student is opposed to seeking additional supports and your concerns are more urgent, let the student know that you will need to consult with another campus professional (appropriate to your level of concern), and then do so in a timely manner.

Campus Professionals Available for Faculty Consultation

If you do not really know the student, you may prefer to first consult with the student’s Class Dean or the Counseling Service. Consulting with one or more of these offices can be an important first step when you are confused about how to proceed or feel worried about a student’s safety. The Class Dean and/or the Counseling Service can help you think about how to speak effectively to a student and provide support for you in this process. In some cases, it will be more appropriate for the Class Dean and/or Counseling Service to reach out to or intervene directly with the student. Consulting with another professional can also be helpful at a later stage in the process, once you have already spoken with a student and are looking for guidance on next steps.

Contact a professional from one of the following offices for consultation and guidance, depending on the level of your concern (i.e. consider whether the issue requires immediate attention):

Class Dean: 781.283.2325

  • For urgent, same day concerns for which you would like to speak to a Class Dean, call 781.283.2325 and request to speak directly with the student’s Dean. For non-urgent concerns, the Class Deans can also be reached by email.
  • Class Deans can consult about a student’s academic performance and overall functioning and help with referrals to other campus support services.
  • Students can also make an appointment with their Class Dean.

Counseling Services: 781.283.2839

  • The Counseling Service offers consultation for staff and faculty and can address “hypothetical” situations if you are unclear about how to proceed with a student. The Counseling Service is open Monday - Friday 8:30-4:30. After business hours, a licensed clinician is available for consultation.
  • The Counseling Service offers free and confidential short-term counseling for Wellesley students and can assist with referrals to other professionals when necessary. Appointments can be made by phone at 781.283.2839. Urgent, same-day appointments are also available each day. Call 781.283.2839 after business hours for on-call phone support with a licensed clinician, who is available to speak directly with a distressed student.

Campus Police: Non-Emergency 781.283.2121, Emergency 781.283.5555

  • When you are concerned about a student’s immediate safety, call Campus Police at 781.283.5555 for support and immediate response, 24/7.

Issues of Confidentiality and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) 

In your role as a faculty member, you are not legally required to 16 keep any medical or psychological information a student shares with you confidential. Thus, if you have concerns about a student’s wellbeing, you are not prevented from informing another campus staff member, such as someone from the Class Dean’s Office, the Counseling Service, or Campus Police. However, it is common for a student to request that you keep what she tells you to yourself. Do not make any promises of confidentiality and instead try to help the student see that she can get confidential assistance from the Counseling Service. Conversations between faculty and students cannot be considered confidential, as legally they are not.

Counseling Service staff members are required by law and by professional ethics to protect the confidentiality of all communication between health professional and client (except in cases where harm to self or harm to others is involved). Consequently, they cannot discuss the details of a student’s situation with others (including the student’s parents and Class Dean) or even indicate whether the student is in counseling without written permission from the student. Counseling Service staff members can receive information from others, and this is often very helpful in giving the clinician a larger context as they work with a student. Therefore, in some cases it may be helpful for a faculty member to share their observations of a student with a clinician.

If you find yourself in a difficult situation involving a student and confidentiality, you can call a Class Dean or the Counseling Service and present the case as “hypothetical.” Staff can walk you through various options to ensure that the student gets the help she needs.

While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) limits the disclosure of information from student “education records,” this does not prevent College staff and faculty from disclosing personal knowledge and impressions about a student that are based on personal interactions with the student. FERPA applies only to information derived from student education records, and not to personal knowledge derived from direct, personal experience with a student. FERPA also permits the disclosure of information from student education records to appropriate parties either inside or outside of Wellesley College in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals. Safety concerns warranting disclosure could include a student’s suicidal statements or thoughts, unusually erratic and angry behaviors, or similar conduct that others would reasonably see as posing a risk of serious harm. 

Campus Resources for Student Support
DepartmentPhoneFor Appointment
Campus Police 
Campus and personal safety concerns; Emergency Management Group (EMG) leadership & coordination.
781.283.2121 (non-emergency)
 781.283.5555 (emergency)
Call 781.283.2121
Career Education 
Information and support related to career, job search, internships, fellowships and scholarships, and graduate and professional school.
781.283.2352 Make an appointment through Handshake
Class Deans Office
Individualized academic advising and support. 
781.283.2325 View drop-in hours or make an appointment online. Class Deans: Susan Cohen, John O’Keefe, Joy Playter, Jennifer Stephan, Lori Tenser
Counseling Service (Stone Center)
Free and confidential individual and group counseling for students; medication management; educational workshops; consultation; referrals to community providers.  
781.283.2839Regular and urgent appointments (during business hours): Call 781.283.2839 After hours phone support: 781.283.2839

Davis Degree Program
Academic advising and support for students of non-traditional ages.  

781.283.2325Call 781.283.2325 or email the Dean of the Davis Degree program, Susan Cohen, at scohen@wellesley.edu.
Dean of Students Office
Holds overall responsibility for student issues and oversees Dean’s Advisory Committee.  
781.283.2322Call 781.283.2322
Dean’s Advisory Committee (DAC)
Meets weekly to coordinate care for students needing support from multiple departments. 
781.283.2325 Faculty can connect with the DAC through the class dean's office at 781.283.2325.
Disability Services
Individualized and confidential assistance and information to all students with disabilities, assistance in requesting accommodations. 
781.283.2434 Call 781.283.2434
Health Service
Confidential medical care including preventative care and treatment of illness and injury, prescriptions, birth control, and HIV/ STI testing; health education services including alcohol and drug education, sleep hygiene, sexual health, and nutrition.
781.283.2810 Call 781.283.2810 for regular appointments; check website for urgent walk-in hours After hours phone support: 781.283.2810

Intercultural Education
Intercultural education activities, trainings and programs that educate and promote diversity and inclusion on campus and increase multicultural competency on campus; individual advising to particular student cultural communities. 

781.283.2685 Call 781.283.2955 or visit website for information on contacting specific cultural advisors

Office of Religious and Spiritual Life
Advising and religious and pastoral counseling for students; multi-faith worship, meditation, and discussion as well as educational and social activities. 

781.283.2685 Call 781.283.2685

Office of Student Involvement
Supports student organizations, activities, trips and events, concerts on campus, and College traditions. 

781.283.2672 Call 781.283.2672
Pforzheimer Learning and Teaching Center (PLTC)
Tutorial programs focused on individualized peer tutoring, supplemental instruction and study skills instruction. 

Request a tutor

Make an appointment with the Director

Residential Life
Initial point of advising for students on many issues in the residence halls; community-building and support. 

781.283.2679 Call 781.283.2679 or contact individual Area Coordinator or Residence Director in each Residence Hall.
Slater International Center
Advising, referrals, and programs related to immigration, employment, academic, social and cultural adjustment issues; international activities on campus and social connection. 
781.283.208 Check website for walk-in hours. For appointments call 781.283.2082.
Student Financial Services
Information and assistance for students and parents regarding financial aid, loans, payment plans, etc. 
781.283.2360Call 781.283.2360



We are extremely grateful to Cornell University for giving us permission to adapt their own faculty guide for supporting students in distress, “Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress: A Faculty Handbook,” from which we drew a large portion of the content of this guide. In addition, Bryn Mawr College allowed us to adapt the content from their guide “Helping Students: A Faculty Guide for Assisting Students in Need,” and Hampshire College graciously gave us permission to adapt their materials, “Faculty Guide for Supporting and Referring Students.” We are grateful to these colleagues for their generosity in sharing these important resources for assisting students in need.


The full guide is downloadable on MyWellesley under Employee Services.