How To Help

Starting the Conversation

University students experience a unique set of stressors throughout the year, and sometimes stress begins to affect their well-being. Common behavioural indicators can help determine the appropriate level of response to assist someone who is struggling. Trusting your instincts and understanding these indicators can help you in responding appropriately and getting the individual the help they need, before their situation escalates to something more serious. 

The "How To Help" framework provides steps for communicating care and support when assisting someone. For most, having someone to speak with and feel understood will be enough.

*This section is based on the Helping Skills™ content from the Community Helpers Program.

  • 1. State Your Concern

    • Be specific in stating behaviours that you have witnessed.
    • Express your concern about what they are experiencing.
    • If either you or the individual do not have adequate time, arrange and alternative time and place.

    Express your concern by saying:
    "You look..." "You sound..." "I heard..." "I saw..."

  • 2. Identify the Problem

    • Be truly non-judgmental when listening, and give the person time to express their thoughts and feelings.
    • Clarify by asking open-ended questions to ensure that you understand the problem correctly, such as, "what I hear you saying is...".

    Start the conversation by asking:
    "What is happening?" "How have you been feeling?"

  • 3. Explore Alternatives

    • When exploring alternatives and giving advice, ensure that you show respect for the individual's experience.
    • Discuss what they see as an appropriate action to address their situation. The most sustainable action plans are those that the individual develops themselves.

    When exploring solutions, try asking:
    "What ideas do you have?" "Have you thought about..." "How likely are you to do that?"

  • 4. Consider Outcomes

    • When considering a course of action, it is important that the person considers the impact on others.
    • Encourage them to think about how those who are impacted might react.

    When exploring the impact of the solutions, consider asking:
    "What would happen if you did that?" "What might the impact of these actions be?" "Is that a problem for anyone else?"

  • 5. Determine What To Do

    • Instill a sense of hope by offering support and encouragement, and reinforce that change is possible.
    • Let them know that others in similar situations often feel the same way. 
    • Support them in their decision of what they want to do.

    In finding out what the person is going to do, you can ask:
    "What would you like to do?" "How can I help you move forward with this?"

  • 6. Express Support

    • If desired, suggest and accompany the individual to a helping resource.
    • Let them know that you will check in with them to see how they are doing.
    • Believe what the person is telling you, and don't promise something you can't deliver.

    Express support by saying:
    "Let me know what happens." "Let me know if you need me."

Assisting Students in Distress

Common behavioural indicators can help determine the appropriate level of response to assist someone in distress. Trusting your instincts and understanding these indicators can help you in responding appropriately and getting the individual the help they need.

Concerning Situations

Those who are showing sign of concerning behaviours likely have options for support, but may need to be reminded of these and/or to be connected with similar supports in the campus community.

  • Indicators and What To Do
    Indicators What to do
    • Change in mood and attitude
    • Isolating oneself from others
    • Change in class participation
    • Procrastination on personal/academic commitments
    • Slight drop in attendance and grades
    • Lack of motivation
    • Deterioration in personal hygiene or dress
    • Dramatic weight gain or loss and/or change in appetite
    • Heightened levels of stress and anxiety
    • Changes in sleep patterns
    • Increase in risk-taking behaviour

    • Address the individual's situation in an empathetic, non-judgmental way.
    • If required, provide resources and follow up.
    • If the individual's behaviour continues to be of concern, contact Helping Individuals At Risk at 780-492-4372.


Critical Situations

Those who are showing signs of critical behaviours likely need professional support and/or intervention due to the ongoing and/or disruptive nature of their concerns. These situations need to be addressed and followed up with, but may not require immediate action. 

  • Indicators and What To Do
    Indicators What to do
    • Extreme mood swings, aggression, or other disruptive behaviour 
    • Significant depressive state or devoid of emotion
    • Extreme emotional distress or high levels of anxiety and worry
    • Bullying or harassment
    • Dominating classroom discussion
    • Hostile or sarcastic remarks
    • Significant problems with roommate, partner, friend, and/or family
    • Disclosure of self harm, disordered eating, substance abuse, current or prior sexual assault an/or partner/family violence
    • Serious academic concerns (e.g. significant drop in attendance and grades)
    • Serious/prolonged illness or injury
    • Lack of food, shelter, and/or financial means
    • Listen to the individual and use the "Quick Referral Guide" to help get the individual to appropriate support services.
    • Contact the Helping Individuals At Risk office at 780-492-4372 to note concern, establish a follow up plan, and discuss further support for the individual.

Urgent Situations

Those who are showing signs of severe behaviours are in need of immediate attention and intervention by other helping professionals and/or emergency services.

  • Indicators and What To Do
    Indicators What To Do
    • Thoughts of suicide or suicidal behaviours
    • Threats and actions of aggression towards others (physical, verbal, correspondence)
    • Imminent threat or action of serious injury to others
    • Serious actions of harassment towards others (physical, verbal, online)
    • Persistence of unwanted/unwarranted contact or harassment/bullying
    • Physical contact/attack
    • Presence of or threat to use a weapon
    • If on campus, contact University of Alberta Protective Services at 780-492-5050  or dial 911.
    • If off campus, dial 911.