SOAS University of London

Student Advice and Wellbeing

Responding To Distressed Students

Common causes of distress

  • Feeling helpless, confused or anxious
  • Inconsistent or conflicting information
  • Disappointment – undermet expectations
  • Money difficulties

Common expressions of distress

  • Tears, anger, blame
  • Reluctance to talk
  • Pouring out of information in an unorganised way

Impact on the helper

  • Especially when trying to be helpful, we can overidentify with the distressed person and end up feeling helpless
  • Feeling helpless or pressurised can give rise to feelings of irritation from mild to strong
  • Feeling under pressure to act quickly
  • Can trigger personal memories which are upsetting
  • Impulse to ‘get rid of’ the troubling person as quickly as possible, stop them crying etc.
  • Can be stressful and/or exhausting

What calms people down

  • Sitting down rather than standing
  • Being listened to
  • Empathy and acknowledgement  (e.g. I can imagine/see/hear that this is upsetting/confusing/frustrating for you )
  • Feeling they are being taken seriously
  • Speaking steadily and in a normal tone
  • Talking in a reasonably discreet place rather than in an open space, while paying attention to your personal safety

Helpful responses

  • Stay calm yourself – listening to the other person rather than trying to think immediately of a solution that will help
  • Hear the person out, even if you don’t think you can help. Cutting them short will add to their frustration
  • Try to see things from the other’s perspective to understand their reactions
  • Find out more information – as much as you can – there are probably several factors to take into account. Start with practical information eg name, course, year of study etc to settle the person.  Take notes if necessary, and explain why you are doing so
  • Summarise your understanding – it will reassure the person that you have been listening
  • Pay attention to the details of what the person is saying, even if their story feels all too familiar to you
  • Remember this is the other person’s issue/problem, not yours.  Don’t take it personally and don’t take it home with you
  • Remember you don’t have to and can’t solve every problem
  • Remember what seems like an emergency to someone else doesn’t have to become an emergency for you. Make a judgement about how urgent it is, without minimising its importance to the other person
  • Focus on what you can do, or what you know the person may be able to do, while being clear about any important limitations
  • Even when you may be able to help in some way, if necessary give yourself enough time. You can agree to e-mail or call the person later once you have checked relevant details/consulted with relevant people. But if you promise to call – do so!
  • Be clear if you are not the appropriate person and let them know or help them find out whom they need to contact (see referral below)
  • Debrief with others if the conversation has been upsetting – with your line manager, colleagues, or contact Student Advice and Wellbeing if you are particularly concerned
  • Keep a factual record of the interaction with the student and any follow up required
  • Argue
  • Be dismissive
  • Interrupt the person prematurely even if you want to correct them
  • Promise something you can’t deliver
  • Give inaccurate or partial information just to get rid of the enquiry
  • Let yourself become identified as the only source of help.  Staff in Student Advice and Wellbeing and the Chaplains do offer confidentiality as part of their service but even they will consult with immediate colleagues in difficult circumstances. Other staff do not have to be bound by confidentiality and should not promise it. Information can be shared on a ‘need to know’ basis.  It is good practice to let the person know that essential information may be shared and how that will be useful for them


  • Refer when you have reached the limit of your resources: time, knowledge, authority.  Explain your limits to the student and the advantages of the referral
  • There are many sources of additional information and support for students (and staff) within the School. Check what is acceptable to the student. Help them to think whether they want specific information or someone to listen in more detail
  • If you refer the person to another area – academic department, Student Advice and Wellbeing, CILT, Exams Office –you can check in advance whether it is the appropriate place. If possible ring ahead and confirm what help is available and when the student could be seen.  If you wish to have a more confidential discussion, if possible let the student know you need to consult a colleague briefly and make a more private call
  • Security or emergency services can be called where there is a risk to you or to the student
  • For more information download Helping Students to Succeed (pdf; 2mb)