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I came upon a student in distress

One afternoon last fall, I went to the washroom in the McLennan Library. Unexpectedly, I heard sobbing coming from one of the stalls. I bent over to look for the shoes that would indicate which stall the sobbing was coming from. I saw the shoes; I also saw a bum in jeans. Someone was sitting on the floor of the stall sobbing uncontrollably. I knocked on the door and asked, “Do you need help?” No response other than more sobbing. I knocked again. This time I said, “My name is Carolyn Samuel. I work down the hall at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS). Can you open the door?” There was no vocal reply, but I heard the latch click. Gently, I pushed the door open. She was a student. She sat sobbing and didn’t even look up when I opened the door. I asked if I could put my hand on her shoulder. She nodded. I was hoping the human touch would provide her with some comfort in what was clearly a time of despair. “Can you tell me your name? Your first name only.” She did. With some coaxing, we went together to my office. She continued to sob. I asked only a few questions. She was an undergraduate student from Toronto. It was her first semester. She felt she was falling behind. She agreed to walk with me to the Office of the Dean of Students. On the way, she stopped suddenly. Still sobbing, she blurted, “I can’t go! I have to be in class now or I’ll fall behind even more!” She was in no condition to go to class. With a little more coaxing, we made it to the Brown Building, where I left her in the hands of the staff at the Office of the Dean of Students.

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you found a student in distress on campus? If you’ve never thought about it, you probably should. A 2014 study of McGill students’ psychological wellbeing reveals data on the percentages of respondents who reported taking a prescribed medication for a mental health concern and who indicated that they seriously considered attempting suicide while at university. The numbers suggest that there are students in distress around us.

“Helping Students in Difficulty” document

TLS and Counselling and Mental Health and Services recently co-facilitated a Mental Health 101 workshop for instructors, advisors and staff in the Faculty of Management. One of the messages we hope was a “take away” for participants was that helping a student in distress doesn’t mean you have to be the problem-solver who makes everything better. You can be the person who leads the student—by giving the phone number to Counselling and Mental Health and Services, showing the website of counselling services offered, or walking the student to the Office of the Dean of Students—to the people who are in a position to help.


Check the Helping Students in Difficulty document (formerly known as the “Red Folder”) to find out what to do and who to contact in emergencies, crises and worrisome or difficult situations. If you’re an instructor and you believe a student is in distress, use the Early Alert System in myCourses. And with final exams coming up, let students know to look for therapy dogs on campus.

How have you helped a student in distress?


DiGenova, L., & Romano, V. (2014). Student psychological wellbeing at McGill University: A report of findings from the 2012 and 2014 Counselling and Mental Health Benchmark Study. Retrieved from https://www.mcgill.ca/counselling/files/counselling/student_psychological_well-being_at_mcgill_december_2014_final_3.pdf

Original publication date: March 31, 2017

Senior Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

1 comment on “I came upon a student in distress

  1. Thank you for sharing! Everyone plays an important role in supporting student mental health and well-being, and a little kindness can go a long way.

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