University of Southern Indiana

Talking to Students and Making Referrals

You may be the first, or only, person in a position to help a student in need. Even if you are not an expert, it is important to remember that you have the ability to help. Being aware of distress signals, ways to intervene, and resources will assist you in responding effectively. If you find yourself feeling worried, alarmed, or threatened, take these signals seriously. Help the student by calling the Dean of Students Office and sharing your concerns. You will be making a positive difference, maybe even saving a student’s life by being available at the right place at the right time.

Preparing to reach out to the student:

  • Know the available campus resources and the referral process.
  • Consult with the Counseling Center to explore the issues involved and your options.
  • With disruptive students, review your physical environment and make provisions for your safety and that of others. If neces­sary, notify colleagues in close proximity of your intended course of action.
  • Allow sufficient time to thoroughly address the issue(s) of concern.
  • Remain calm and know who to call for assistance in case of need.
  • Review the Counseling Center flow chart.
  • When a student expresses a direct threat to self or others, (the red path on the Counseling Center flow chart), or acts in a bizarre, highly irrational, or disruptive man­ner, call the Office of Public Safety.
  • If you decide not to intervene with the student, report the situation to the Dean of Students Office.
  • Before a situation arises, consider having the Counseling Center give a presentation to your department about responding to distressed students.

When engaging with the student:

  • Connect with the distressed student. If safe, meet and talk in private to minimize embarrassment and defensiveness.
  • Clearly express your concerns, focusing on the behavior in non-disparaging terms.
  • Help the student to see a different perspective, but do not challenge, shock, or become argumentative with the student.
  • Use open-ended questions with empathy and be supportive.
  • Repeat the student’s statement in your own words to demonstrate an understanding of the student’s perspective, and to help him/her feel heard.
  • Do not minimize the possibility of suicide. If at all worried ask—it does not implant the idea! Ask about suicide in a direct manner. (e.g., “When feel­ing really bad, people often wish they were dead and they may think about suicide. I’m wondering if you’re feeling that way too?”)
  • Offer supportive alternatives/resources, but only after listening and fully understanding.
  • Respect the student’s privacy without making false promises of confidentiality.
  • Explore the student’s support system.
  • Emphasize the importance of professional help for the student (as needed).
  • Attempt to foster a sense of hope.
  • Normalize distress—everyone struggles at challenging times.

Making a referral:

  • Be frank with the student about your limits (time, expertise, student’s reluctance to talk).
  • Review the Counseling Center flow chart and direct the student to assistance.
  • Recommend services and provide the student with realistic expectations.
  • Frame any decision to seek and accept help as a positive, intelligent, and wise choice.
  • Reassure them that students often seek help over the course of their college career to effectively achieve their goals.
  • It is normal to experience distress during times of crisis. If comfortable, share your own story while normalizing struggle and fostering a sense of hope.
  • Make sure the student understands what actions are necessary.
  • As necessary, encourage and assist the student to make and keep appointments with USI support staff.
  • If necessary, find someone to stay with the student while calls to the appropriate resourc­es are made. Offer to accompany the student.
  • Set a follow-up appointment with him/her even after you have connected them to resources (e.g., counseling).

Statements that might help you to make a successful referral to the Counseling Center:

  • "Sounds like you are really struggling with _________. Many people find it helpful to talk with someone that is outside of the station."
  • "I want to help you get the help you need and deserve."
  • "Meeting with a University counselor is confidential, free, and will not go on your academic record."


Note: Some content has been adapted from Webster University.

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