Students in distress

Studying at university can be a unique and challenging experience. Most students experience elevated stress at some time during their university career. Students may become distressed (have a strong emotional response) for many reasons, including poor health; stressful life circumstances; mental health concerns like anxiety or depression; family difficulties; relationship problems; pressures of balancing work and study; trauma; grief; sexual assault, harassment or exposure to violence; or drug/alcohol use. Not all students experience distress, and not all distressed students are experiencing signs of mental illness.

Throughout the course of their work, ANU staff members may encounter students who are in distress or who exhibit distressed behaviour which is confusing, concerning, or challenging to respond to. This guide is designed to assist staff in the understanding of the nature of distress and to provide information on the support channels available to students in distress. This guideline recognises that best practice in the support of those who are emotionally distressed or who may be experiencing signs of reduced mental health is one of early intervention, through timely and respectful access to support.


  1. Please be aware that this is a general guide only and in no way covers all distress situations, which can vary widely. Modification to your approach or further consultation with relevant professional staff may be required, depending on the individual circumstance. This is especially the case for complex situations or those involving safety concerns.
  2. When supporting a student, be clear about your time constraints and set boundaries or limits if the student appears to be asking for ongoing support from you – for ethical reasons it is not appropriate for you to offer to be the student’s main source of support.
  3. Ensure that you do not place yourself in a position where you are solely responsible for the student’s safety or safety-planning, particularly if you are not formally trained in suicide prevention responses. The best response is to connect the student promptly to appropriate professional support.
    • If you are interested in basic training in the area, you can enrol in an accredited Mental Health First Aid and/or suicide intervention skills course.
    • Please note that even if you have completed an existing or similar course, the emphasis of support is on mental health first aid, whereby you respond to any immediate threat by activating an initial response, then handover to suitable professional services for treatment, support and ongoing care.
  4. This does not cover suggested responses to threatening behaviours such as aggression toward others, harassment, bullying, sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, physical violence, property damage, or threats of harm to others. Refer to the appropriate overarching policies and procedures on these matters, in addition to ‘Disruptive Behaviour: Guidelines for a Coordinated ANU Response.'