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Helping a Student in Distress or Difficulty

More Feet on the Ground: Referring a peer to a resource 

“More feet on the ground” is a short course (~45 minutes) designed to teach students how they can best support their peers using simple principles and real-life scenarios. We highly recommend taking the course, as it addresses nuanced support situations and allows you to apply the skills you’ve learned.

Content warning: The “More feet on the ground” course contains discussion of suicide, self-harm, etc. Register for the “More Feet on the Ground” course here or learn the basics in the table below.

Step  Basic principles 
Recognize  Watch for distress indicators related to academics, physical appearance, behaviour, emotions, safety risk, and/or emergencies.  

Take action if the student exhibits: 

  • A single safety risk indicator 
  • A single emergency indicator 
  • Several “lesser” indicators 

Trust your judgement. 

Respond  Creating a space for a positive conversation to happen includes: 

  • Choosing a time and place where you can speak privately. 
  • Ensuring you have the time available to listen. 
  • Minimizing potential distractions from electronics or others which could lead to a negative impression. 

How to start the conversation: 

  • Refer to specific behaviours or patterns, without making judgements or inferences. 
  • Share your concerns and ask permission to talk further about them. 
  • Use tentative language to provide room for disagreement. 
  • Use non-verbal cues to indicate active listening. 

How to balance privacy and safety of yourself and the student: 

  • Avoid making sweeping promises about privacy. 
  • If they might pose a safety risk to themselves, ask them if they’re considering suicide to understand the urgency. 
  • If you have an urgent concern about their safety, stay with them and notify health services, campus security, or local police. 
  • If you’re concerned about your own safety, call campus security or local police for immediate assistance. 
Refer  To be able to best support a peer, you will need to first learn about the resources available on your campus. Since you’re already on the SWC’s Resources page, you are in the right place! 

How to explore options for support with a peer: 

  • Explain the limitations of your knowledge and emphasize the help other resources and provide. 
  • Let them know that service options are available for them. 
  • Normalize the need to ask for help. 
  • Emphasize their personal control in seeking or not seeking support. 

Once you’ve chosen the right resource together, ask them whether they would like your help in accessing it to make the process easier. Finally, thank your peer for sharing and keep the door open for further conversation with reasonable boundaries around when you’re available. 

After your conversation, remember to take care of yourself and your own needs. 

Register for the “More Feet on the Ground” course here. 

The 5 R’s: Steps in helping a student in distress or difficulty 

This resource was originally created for McMaster staff as a guide for how to best support students. Its principles extend upon the 3 R’s if you need more guidance on how to recognize distress in your peers and address it. Access the full “5 R’s” tool here. 

Framework: Each step in the 5 R’s is framed through the level of support a peer may require.  

These support levels include: 

  • No additional support required 
  • Support required 
  • Urgent support required 
  • Emergency support required 
Step  Action  What you will learn 
1  Recognize   Signs that your peer may need support based off emotional, behaviour, physical, and academic indicators. 
2  Reach out  How to approach a peer after you recognize indicator(s) of distress. 
3  Rate  How to rate the level of support a peer may require depending on certain criteria within your interaction. 
4  Respond  How to support a peer most effectively depending on the level of support you think they require. 
5  Review  What steps should be taken to ensure your peer received proper support. 

This section is more catered to staff requirements after referral to health or emergency services. 

 Access the full “5 R’s” tool here.