Family, friends, faculty, or staff members are the first to recognize signs that a student is experiencing emotional distress. When you notice signs that someone may be experiencing a mental health problem, you can help and if you are not sure what to do or say, the MU Counseling Center is available to help you decide how best to help. At any time in a conversation with a student that you realize this problem is bigger than you can address, call the Counseling Center for assistance. If you find out the student is in immediate danger, call 911 and request a CIT (Crisis Intervention Trained) office to assist if possible.
You can help
It’s okay to talk about mental health concerns. Doing so is often the first step toward someone getting better. Before you start the conversation it’s helpful to check in with yourself to make sure you have the emotional resources to help, that you both have enough time to see the conversation through, and that you are in a safe and relatively private location. Try to remain calm and use a kind voice.
Express your concern
It is best to share your concerns by focusing on observable behaviors. Sharing a behavior or two followed by open questions can help you get a better idea of what may be going on. You might say something like, “I have not seen you at dinner the last few days, what’s been keeping you away?” Another example could be, “You seem sad lately and I’ve noticed you drinking more than usual. I am concerned about you. How are you doing?” It is important to avoid words, facial expressions, and tone that convey judgment about a behavior.
Listen to understand
You don’t need to fix a problem or take away a person’s pain. Simply being present and listening with all of your attention may help your friend feel cared about. Don’t worry about finding the perfect thing to say. Just being present and willing to listen can be helpful. It can also help to express empathy. Empathy is about connecting with another person. Sometimes that is as simple as saying you don’t know what to say, but you are glad your friend is talking to you.
When suicide is a concern
Many people consider suicide when they have exhausted all other coping resources. It’s okay to directly ask about suicide. Asking will often reduce a person’s risk for attempting suicide. Just knowing someone cares enough to have the discussion can build hope and help the person feel less alone. If you think someone may be thinking about suicide, ask them directly. “Sometimes when people feel like you do now, they think about ending their life. Have you been thinking about that?” You can also ask more simply, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” If the person is considering suicide, you can get a better idea of your next steps by asking additional questions such as:
Do you know when you might kill yourself?
Do you know how you would kill yourself?
Do you have the things you would need to kill yourself?
How likely are you to act on your plan?
If a person conveys fairly immediate plans and some likelihood to act, please get help immediately and take steps to ensure the person is not left alone. However, if a person is considering suicide but does not have immediate plans to act, it is not necessary to stay with them constantly. In that situation encourage contact with mental health professionals at the Counseling Center or Student Health Center. Both centers offer same or next day options for a person who is in crisis, including those considering suicide.
Remember you are never alone in this discussion. At any time you can call the Counseling Center or a national hotline for help. It’s also a good idea to ask the person who else can help and encourage the person to reach out or allow you to reach out to others who care about and can help support the person.
For more help and resources, please take the Ask Listen Refer training.
Build hope that life can get better
If your friend is feeling defeated or finding it hard to believe things can get better, you can help them build hope. You may do this by saying, “You’re important to me and we’ll get through this together.” You may also want to share information about the MU Counseling Center. It can help to let your friend know the Counseling Center is a good resource and most students who complete treatment feel significantly better after just a few sessions. Remind them that people do care about them, and avoid suggesting others would be hurt by the person’s emotions, thoughts, or possible suicide. Ask what might be helpful. Sometimes our best intentions do not meet the needs of another person. Asking what might be helpful can increase the chance that what you offer will be useful. Unless your friend specifically asks for religious guidance, it is important to refrain from sharing your faith beliefs at this moment.
Remember to take care of you
While supporting a friend can feel good, it may also be challenging, stressful, or scary. Remember to practice good self care by taking breaks, getting good sleep, consulting with professionals, taking time for yourself, and getting support for you.
It can also be helpful to set clear boundaries around your time and energy. Decide and clearly communicate when and how often you can answer the phone, visit, share meals, etc. Not setting clear boundaries often leads to burn out and hurt feelings. You can state boundaries by saying something like, “I care about you and I care about my test tomorrow. I need to study tonight and I’d love to spend time with you and listen tomorrow afternoon.”
Sometimes our friends are not ready to accept help. Try not to take it personally if your friend dismisses your concern. Try again on another day and continue to let the person know you care. It can be helpful to offer to go with your friend to their first counseling appointment or to talk with a professor or advisor.
The Faculty and Staff guide may help you decide who to call and what first steps to take when a student’s distress is creating classroom challenges.
If you would like to learn more about how to help someone in distress. Take Ask Listen Refer an online suicide prevention course, or sign up for an upcoming RESPOND course to learn more about how you can help someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.