Supporting Students in Distress

Students in distress

Studying at university can be a unique and challenging experience. Most students experience elevated stress at some time during their university career. Students may become distressed (have a strong emotional response) for many reasons, including poor health; stressful life circumstances; mental health concerns like anxiety or depression; family difficulties; relationship problems; pressures of balancing work and study; trauma; grief; sexual assault, harassment or exposure to violence; or drug/alcohol use. Not all students experience distress, and not all distressed students are experiencing signs of mental illness.

Throughout the course of their work, ANU staff members may encounter students who are in distress or who exhibit distressed behaviour which is confusing, concerning, or challenging to respond to. This guide is designed to assist staff in the understanding of the nature of distress and to provide information on the support channels available to students in distress. This guideline recognises that best practice in the support of those who are emotionally distressed or who may be experiencing signs of reduced mental health is one of early intervention, through timely and respectful access to support.


  1. Please be aware that this is a general guide only and in no way covers all distress situations, which can vary widely. Modification to your approach or further consultation with relevant professional staff may be required, depending on the individual circumstance. This is especially the case for complex situations or those involving safety concerns.
  2. When supporting a student, be clear about your time constraints and set boundaries or limits if the student appears to be asking for ongoing support from you - for ethical reasons it is not appropriate for you to offer to be the student's main source of support.
  3. Ensure that you do not place yourself in a position where you are solely responsible for the student's safety or safety-planning, particularly if you are not formally trained in suicide prevention responses. The best response is to connect the student promptly to appropriate professional support.
    • If you are interested in basic training in the area, you can enrol in an accredited Mental Health First Aid and/or suicide intervention skills course.
    • Please note that even if you have completed an existing or similar course, the emphasis of support is on mental health first aid, whereby you respond to any immediate threat by activating an initial response, then handover to suitable professional services for treatment, support and ongoing care.
  4. This does not cover suggested responses to threatening behaviours such as aggression toward others, harassment, bullying, sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, physical violence, property damage, or threats of harm to others. Refer to the appropriate overarching policies and procedures on these matters, in addition to 'Disruptive Behaviour: Guidelines for a Coordinated ANU Response.'

Recognising distress

When a student is experiencing difficulty, staff, family or friends are often the first to notice. If we can recognise the signs of acute emotional distress, suicidal thoughts or self-harm behaviours, we can help the student receive the support they need to cope.

Students may be distressed for many reasons, including:

  • study stress
  • relationship difficulties
  • poor health
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • trauma
  • grief.

Distress may be indicated by:

  • avoidance
  • tearfulness
  • deterioration in appearance
  • disturbing emails or assessment items
  • increased tension
  • reduced motivation
  • self-harm behaviour
  • thoughts of suicide.

When responding to a student in distress, it is important to acknowledge their distress. Acknowledging the distress in a calm and concerned manner can help the student receive appropriate and timely support.

What you can do

If a student approaches you and is showing common signs of distress, remain calm. You can offer your assistance by doing the following.

  • Acknowledge: Let the student know you are concerned for them and tell them why.
  • Listen: Briefly encourage the student to talk about the distress they are experiencing.
  • Determine: Check your understanding of the situation and whether the student has sufficient support and resources to cope, or if they need additional support.
  • Act: Help the student to receive the appropriate support they need to cope.
    • Attempt to arrange a referral; ask if the student has anyone to talk to. Help the student to find support and resources only if you have their prior consent (e.g. contact the Counselling Centre or go online for other resources).
    • If the student does not consent, it is possible to consult more generally (protecting confidentiality; see information in Privacy) with a staff member or the Counselling Centre for assistance on what you could do.
    • You may check in with the student at a later date and enquire how they are. At that point, you could suggest a referral if it is still warranted.
    • Consider the option of discussing the allowance of extended time on assignments or special consideration if you think it relevant - this may be the main reason the student is meeting with you. If this behaviour becomes a pattern at assessment times, then refer the student to the Disability Services Centre for professional review, rather than immediately agreeing further or repeated extensions.
    • Provide information on available and relevant student services (such as ANU Counselling, or Disability Services Centre).

Imminent risk

On rare occasions, student distress may involve a risk of harm to the individual student or others. Safety concerns and risk of harm related to student distress can include:

  • Actual or implied threat of harm to self, including disclosures of thoughts of suicide or self-harm;
  • The expression of hopelessness, for example statements such as "things will never get better", "no one can help me", "I don't see my future improving", or "what's the point?"
  • Observed non-accidental injuries (e.g. distinct pattern of burns, scars or cuts) or reported self-harming behaviours (including stated future plans to harm);
  • Indirect behaviours or statements indicating possible intention to harm (e.g. giving away possessions, acquiring methods of harm, or saying farewell unexpectedly).

In the event a student is extremely distressed and expresses immediate thoughts or intentions to harm themselves, or you see evidence of harm in progress:

  • Establish immediate safety, contact emergency services on 000, then call ANU Security.
  • Remain: stay with the student and talk to them if it is safe and appropriate to do so. Take the students concerns very seriously and express your concern for their wellbeing.
  • Advise: let the student know that you are going to help them get the assistance they need. Let them know you think it best if you could help them to talk with a mental health professional or with ANU Counselling about the concerns - try to do this with the student's consent and while they are present.
  • Be transparent: gain the student's consent to make any calls, and check the accuracy of the information you will provide.
  • Seek support: get support from others to assist, this includes emergency assistance if necessary. A list of useful contact numbers is on the back page of this brochure.

If you see evidence the student has self-harmed or self-injured but you have been able to establish immediate safety and the injuries are minor, administer or seek necessary medical first aid (where qualified to do so).

Please note that prompt, preferably same or next day, medical assessment of any injury is recommended, via connection of the student with their local doctor or medical centre. First aid is unable to rule out or treat possible long-term consequences of self-injury such as infection or scarring.

Under no circumstances agree to keep information pertaining to a risk of serious harm a secret-if in doubt about the limits to confidentiality, check with the ANU Counselling. Explain to the student that this is why you need to tell someone about your concerns. If the student is unwilling to allow you to engage the assistance of the Counselling Centre, or if serious concerns emerge out of usual business hours, offer the student your support to connect them with a relevant community service.

Impact on you

Supporting a student who is experiencing emotional distress or exhibiting acute self-harm or suicidal behaviours can in turn affect your own mental and emotional health. It can be helpful to talk with your supervisor or to consult with the Counselling Centre about how you assisted the student and how that has affected you.

Some signs that indicate it may be useful for you to talk to someone include:

  • Thinking or talking about a particular student more than usual.
  • Experiencing strong emotions about the student that you helped.
  • Not being able to move on from the event or from the student you helped.
  • Seeking professional support for yourself can help you process and understand what happened.

Staff can arrange to speak to the Adviser to Staff or one of the external Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers(Staff only content).

If you are a staff member and have been involved in a critical event (as detailed above), please complete the online incident notification form and notify your supervisor.

Students can arrange to talk to someone from ANU Counselling .


There are limits to the information that can be shared about students and with whom it can be shared. Privacy law (The Privacy Act 1988 (Cth)) and the Australian Privacy Principles guide how we consult in the case of suicidal or distressed students. Privacy legislation allows staff to discuss their concerns about a student with their supervisor or colleague to help resolve a situation while protecting a student's confidentiality. Generally, you cannot disclose a person's personal information to anyone, including their family, without their prior consent.

The exception to requiring the person's prior consent to disclose their personal information is if the disclosure is reasonably necessary to lessen or prevent a serious threat to the life, health or safety of any individual or to public health or safety, and it is unreasonable or impracticable to get their consent first (e.g. asking their consent is likely to increase the threat to health or safety). More information is available at  Policies

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