This section focuses on how to respond in an empathetic way to a student in distress. Handout 2: Responding to Students in Distress is available as a PDF.

These slides are available for use with this section of the presentation. For information about downloading presentation slides, see Introduction.


The second R is respond. Start this section with a reflection activity.

Reflection Activity

Think of a time when you were mildly or moderately upset or distressed yourself. Perhaps think back to when you were a post-secondary student. Reflect on what you needed or hoped for at that time. What did you need or want from others? Please take a couple minutes to write some of your thoughts. (Give participants a few minutes.)

Then ask participants to share one of the things they needed or wanted from others when they were upset or distressed (remind them not to share the details of the event itself).

If you are presenting online, ask participants to put their answers in the chat box, and read the responses from chat.

Then ask them to share one thing that wasn’t or would not have been helpful. (If you are presenting online, ask participants to put their answers in the chat box.)

You have all had experiences with various responses when you were distressed. From your own life experience, you have developed an understanding of what is helpful that you can draw on when you are responding to students. The responses you have identified as helpful are examples of an empathic response.

Video: Brené Brown on Empathy (2:53 min)

This short video from well-known sociologist Brené Brown demonstrates how to respond in a helpful, compassionate way – empathy in action. (Show the Brené Brown video or share the link in chat): Brené Brown on Empathy.

Video Reflection Activity

  • What stood out to you about the video?
  • Is there anything you would like to add to the conversation we had about what would (or wouldn’t) be part of a supportive response?

After the video, remind participants that there is not a script you need to follow, nor one way that will always work. The most important thing is to be yourself and to be authentic – and this can include being honest when you’re not sure what to say.

The role of an empathetic listener is not to “fix” the student or tell them how to respond. Instead it is to listen and try to help them find appropriate support. Your expression of concern may be a critical factor in saving a student’s academic career or life.

In many cases it’s not the things we have to say that make the difference, it’s the things that we allow the other person to say and get off their chest that will make room for more life-affirming options to come forth. Just being there, giving support, and offering a listening ear can help create a turning point for a student who is struggling.

When responding to students in distress, consider an appropriate balance of desire to help and provide solutions and respect for students’ autonomy and their own capacity.

Some Tips for Responding to Students in Distress

Before you talk to a student, make sure you are in a private place to have the conversation. Here are some suggestions:

  • Give the student your complete attention. Listen without judgment and let them talk without interruption.
  • Acknowledge the student’s thoughts and feelings with compassion and empathy.
  • Try using an “I” statement to start a conversation to express your concern. For example, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t handed in the last two assignments and have missed a lot of classes lately, and I’m concerned.”
  • Repeat their statements to clarify and ensure that you understand what the issues are. For example, you could say, “I want to be sure I understand what you are saying. Is this what you meant?”
  • Let them know you are concerned and want to help them find the right resources.

You don’t need to “fix” the student, and you are not expected to act as the counsellor. You can assist many students simply by listening and referring them for further help.

Should I Ask About Suicide?

Ask the group: what comes up for you when you consider asking about suicide? Invite them to share (either in person or in chat for online) and address answers, which may include:

  • I’d be afraid that by asking they would start thinking about it more.
  • It’s so much responsibility.
  • I don’t have time to deal with the issue fully.
  • I won’t know what to do if they are considering suicide – what next?
  • What if it’s insulting to the student?

Validate all responses, reinforcing the notion that it is frightening to ask about suicide. Reinforce that one of the greatest fears most people have about asking is, what if a student says “yes”?

One concern that people often have is that if they bring up suicide and a student isn’t considering it, they may start thinking about it as an option. That is untrue. Asking about suicide will not put the thought into someone’s mind. It can give the person a sense of relief – for example, “Finally, someone has seen my pain” – or give them permission to open up further about something they have been keeping hidden.

If you do ask about suicide, it can be helpful to be open and direct in your questioning – this approach will convey a level of comfort. If a student says they are contemplating suicide, here are some ways to be helpful:

  • Ask if they want to talk about it.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do, and offer to help them access support.
  • Be non-judgmental and empathic.
  • Do not minimize the feelings expressed by the student.
  • Do not be sworn to secrecy. Seek out the support of appropriate professionals.
  • Do not use clichés or try to debate with the student.
  • In an acute crisis, take the student to counselling services or call a crisis line or 911 and campus security.
  • If there seems to be an immediate risk, do not leave the student alone until help is provided.

Reinforce that it isn’t the expectation that everyone ask about suicide. If a participant is still nervous or uncomfortable with the question, that’s okay. It’s okay to have limits. Within your role, the expectation is that you would help get the student connected to someone who will ask.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from Capacity to Connect: Supporting Students from Distress to Suicide. © Vancouver Island University. Added “Reflection: Responding to Distress,” “Some Tips for Responding to Students in Distress,” and “Should I Ask About Suicide?” Adapted by Barbara Johnston and Liz Warwick. CC BY 4.0 license.

Media Attributions


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Capacity to Connect: Supporting Students’ Mental Health and Wellness Copyright © 2023 by Gemma Armstrong; Michelle Daoust; Ycha Gil; Albert Seinen; Faye Shedletzky; Jewell Gillies; Barbara Johnston; and Liz Warwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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