Students in difficulty

Find the tools you need to help students and connect them with resources and support.


Occasionally, you may be in a position to respond to students in difficulty, whether self-identified or identified by the instructor. According to “Student Health at McGill University: A Report of the Findings of the 2014 National College Health Assessment”, 42% of students self-reportedly experience stress, 42% report a chronic health problem, 33% report anxiety, 14% report depression, 8.4% report a sexual assault, etc.

Your role is not to serve as a therapist, but to ensure that you have the tools necessary to respond to a student in difficulty with confidence and care.

Student anecdotes

“A few semesters ago, I was in a large introductory course with another student who exacerbated my anxiety. I told the professor that the possibility of interacting with this student caused me to feel unable to focus and contribute to the class. This professor empathized with me and offered to let me slip out of class a few moments early, as well as suggesting I contact the Dean of Students. This professor’s support changed my experience in the class entirely. I would not have attended class and might have failed the course had the professor not made the accommodations he did.”

"I was very depressed and my instructor noticed my absences from class. The instructor stopped me at the end of class and asked to speak with me, and asked if there was anything that she could help me with. I was happy that someone cared enough to ask and I shared that I was really struggling and in a difficult relationship, but was staying because of financial concerns. With the professor’s patience and kind words, and offer to give me additional time to hand in a paper, as well as directing me to the Counselling Services, I found the strength to continue.”


The helping students in difficulty folder

Formerly known as the Red Folder, this resource was developed by the Office of the Dean of Students to serve as the guide for what to do and who to contact in emergencies, crises, and worrisome or difficult situations with students.

You can access a web version of the Helping Students in Difficulty Folder on the Office of the Dean of Students website. If you would like a paper copy of the Helping Students in Difficulty folder, it is available for pick-up at the Office of the Dean of Students front desk (Suite 2100, Brown Student Services Building). Please call ahead to reserve your copies (514-398-4990).

Suggested procedure

  • Keep this document close at hand and review it thoroughly.
  • Should you observe the various behaviours and indicators, determine if the corresponding party should be contacted. When unsure if the situation requires follow-up, err on the side of caution and contact the Office of the Dean of Students to speak with a casemanager [at] (Case Manager) or use the Early Alert System (see Tool #17).
  • Should you encounter a situation that warrants immediate intervention (i.e. a student appears in crisis or identifies themselves as needing assistance from a McGill service), remember to respect your personal boundaries. Develop a concrete action path with or for the student. This may include asking a student if they are already connected to a McGill Service, referring a student to a resource (see Tool #18), or coordinating for someone to accompany the student to the Office of the Dean of Students.

More info

Samuel, Carolyn. “I Came upon a Student in Distress.” Teaching for Learning Blog, 31 Mar. 2017, Web. <>.

Tellier, Pierre-Paul, and Lina DiGenova. “Student Health at McGill University: A Report of the Findings from the 2013 National College Health Assessment.” McGill University, December 2014. Web. <>.

The early alert system

The Early Alert System coordinates efforts to support a student or refer them to the relevant resource. It is a widget that appears on the myCourses homepage. If you observe indicators or behaviours outlined in the Helping Students in Difficulty Folder, you can use the Early Alert System to directly notify a Case Manager in the Office of the Dean of Students about a concern for a student.

The Office of the Dean of Students will reach out to students with an “Expression of Concern” – sometimes this comes as a phone call from an advisor or sometimes it is when an instructor sends an Early Alert, which is merely a signal to the Office of the Dean of Students that an instructor is worried about a student. A Dean of Students Case Manager will reach out to a student when concern has been raised but will not reference any specific details. The personnel at the Office of the Dean of Students are discreet, respect the privacy of everyone, but also ensure they prioritize student well-being. Here are examples of how students respond to the expression of concern:

Anecdote from a student: “Thank you. I have not been ok and I am not sure what kind of help I need. I would be glad to meet with you.”
Anecdote from a student: “Thank you for your concern. I have not been able to leave my room, not sleeping, I have an exam tomorrow and I don’t know what to do. Can you help?”

It is suggested that instructors err on the side of caution when using the Early Alert System so that issues might be addressed before they escalate. The alert is confidential, does not reference specific details, and does not appear on the student’s transcript. If you want to ask an initial question without including the student’s name, you are also welcome to do so.

Tool #18: Important contacts for instructors

This tool includes contact information for the services that you are most likely to refer students to. Referals will likely be made once a student clearly identifies their needs or asks for additional resources. If you are unsure of the appropriate service, the Office of the Dean of Students is able to direct the student or provide direct assistance. In case of emergency, Security Services is the primary contact.

Suggested procedure

  • Have this list on hand, placing it on your desk or nearby.
  • When dealing with a student in difficulty, establish rapport by listening carefully to the concerns they are expressing. Ask if the student is already connected to a McGill Student Service and if you may call that service. Alternatively, refer them to a student service that is well equipped to provide assistance. In some circumstances, students may also benefit from accompaniment to the service.

McGill Resources

Student Wellness Hub – Brown Building, 3rd Floor


Office of the Dean of Students – Brown Building, #2100


Office of Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education –
550 Sherbrooke O. Suite 585


Office for Students with Disabilities – 1010 Sherbrooke O. #410


Security Services – Burnside Hall


Faculty of Arts Resources

Office of Advising and Student Information Service (OASIS) -
Dawson Hall


Associate Dean of Student Affairs - Dawson Hall


PDF icon Tool #18: Important Contacts for Instructors

Important contacts for students

Students may not be aware of the various campus and community support services available. Here is a list you can share with them, either by linking to the hub for support services ( in the syllabus or posting the following list in myCourses.

Suggested post for myCourses

Subject heading: Getting Support On Campus

Text: There are a number of support services on campus that meet a wide variety of needs. It is likely that every student will access at least one of these services during their time at McGill. If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or Campus Security Services at 514-398-3000.

Office of the Dean of Students

  • The Office of the Dean of Students (514-398-4990) offers students assistance in every way, whether it is answering questions or providing advice and referrals to the appropriate individual or office on campus (

Professional Health and Mental Health Support

Academic Support

  • Office for Students with Disabilities (514-398-6009) - offers you support if you feel that difficulties and impairments are hindering your academic performance while at McGill, or if you require assistance with access-related issues (
  • Office of Advising and Student Information Services (OASIS) (514-398-1029) - advises, assists and supports all undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts (

Peer Support

  • Peer Support Centre – offers free, drop-in, confidential and non-judgemental peer-to-peer support and resource referral to McGill students (
  • McGill Student’s Nightline (514-398-MAIN/3246) – serves as a confidential and anonymous listening and referral service (
  • Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Student’s Society (SACOMSS) (514-398-8500) – offers survivors of sexual assault and their allies direct support, advocacy, and outreach-based programs. (

Additional Resources

  • Office of Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education (514-398-4486) - provides confidential, non-judgmental and non-directional support and education to students, faculty and staff of all genders who have been impacted by sexual violence (
  • International Student Services (514-398-4349) - supports the growth, progress, and success of international students at McGill, and aims to ease their transition to a new school, a new home and a new country (
  • Scholarships and Student (Financial) Aid - offers advice on funding options, budgeting and debt management. They also disburse all provincial, federal and US government student aid funding, and help with government aid information and documentation (
  • First People’s House (514-398-3217) - strives to provide a “home away from home” for First Nations, Inuit and Métis students at McGill University. It is a resource, residence, gathering place, and community (


While this web page is accessible worldwide, McGill University is on land which has served and continues to serve as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. Teaching and Learning Services acknowledges and thanks the diverse Indigenous peoples whose footsteps mark this territory on which peoples of the world now gather. This land acknowledgement is shared as a starting point to provide context for further learning and action.

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