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Suggestions for Talking to Someone in Distress

Remember that you are approaching this person because you are concerned about him or her. The most important aspect of your conversation is to express that concern. Often people who are having a difficult time feel isolated and alone, and your expression of concern is helpful in itself. Start by sharing with the friend or acquaintance what you have observed (or what was reported to you) that has led you to be concerned. ("I noticed you were crying a few minutes ago;" "You seem more irritable than usual;" "I have heard that you have been talking about suicide recently.")

Say something that indicates you are sympathetic to how he or she may be feeling ("You must be going through a difficult time"). Then ask an open-ended question, or make a general statement, to allow the student to respond ("I would like to be helpful in some way;" "Can you tell me what’s going on?").

Give the person time to respond. Don’t feel that you need to solve this student’s problem, but do try to listen carefully. When you have the opportunity, tell him or her about appropriate resources – the Dean of the College Office or the Graduate School for academic difficulties, Psychological Services for emotional support or help with anxiety, depression, etc.; the Office of Student Life for possible medical leave of absence, family issues, problems with other students, etc.

If you believe that it is very important for the student to contact one of these offices, it is helpful to have the phone number of the office with you before you begin the conversation. Then you may facilitate the contact by phoning the office and asking to arrange for an appointment while the person is with you. If you believe the student should have an appointment immediately or on the day you are phoning, you should let the person making the appointment know this, and if possible, let that staff person know the reason for your concern, even if the student is in your presence.

Here are other things to keep in mind regarding these conversations:

  • Choose a location with some privacy.
  • Avoid “yes/no” questions (Questions such as "Are you all right?" often elicit the answer "yes," regardless of the true circumstance).
  • There is no one right way to have these conversations; each individual finds a style that works for him or her.
  • Although your main goal is to be supportive to this individual and to give information, there are times when people are so anxious, confused, or depressed that it is very difficult for them to make decisions or take action. Then it is helpful for you to be more directive ("I do think it is best that we call Psychological Services and make an appointment now.").
  • Do not put yourself in the position of forcing the person to do something he or she does not want to do. If necessary, a Dean of Student Life can require a student to meet with him/her, or with a Psychological Services clinician.
  • Do not promise confidentiality to someone who is talking about the possibility of suicide. If a friend or acquaintance asks you to keep something confidential before he or she tells you what it is, say that you can keep most things confidential, but there may be some things that you would need to take action on, in order to keep this individual or others safe. In a life-threatening situation, rapid professional and administrative intervention is needed.