Students at risk

Quick guide for staff on how to identify and support students who may be experiencing mental health problems or personal distress.

Mental health advice for others (secondary consultation)

CAPS can provide secondary consultation; that is, we can consult with university staff regarding any mental health concerns about students or other staff. This could include:

  • Dealing with a crisis
  • Understanding complex student behaviour
  • Responding to mental health concerns
  • Referring people for counselling.

Secondary consultation is provided by senior counsellors and the manager.

To request a secondary consultation, call us at 03 8344 6927 during business hours to arrange a phone or an in-person consult.

Identifying students at risk

Mental health problems are common in university student populations with the typical age of onset for mental illness coinciding with the age of many university students.

The nature of the university experience can also be a potential factor in increasing students’ psychological distress. For instance, some students may experience high academic demands, financial difficulties, stress from transitioning between education levels or relocation for study, and changes in lifestyle (e.g. poor diet, lack of sleep, drug and alcohol use).

Stressful or distressing personal experiences also do not occur with consideration for the demands of academic life. In any given year, some people will be troubled by difficult life events such as sudden illness, hardship or trauma, or bereavement, which can impact someone’s mental health and/or ability to cope with study.

As a staff member, you may observe signs that indicate a student is experiencing distress, or at risk of deteriorating mental health, and be able to provide a timely response. Assisting students to access mental health support early can be critical in preventing problems from becoming more serious or prolonged, and potentially reduce adverse impacts of mental health issues on a person’s academic/work functioning, relationships, and quality of life. Early intervention is also associated with better recovery outcomes.

Recognising common signs of distress

These common signs of distress may be due to reactions to a specific event or cause, while others may result from long-term factors. This information can assist staff working with students to be familiar with common indicators of concern and helpful ways to respond.


  • Non-attendance
  • Consistent failure to complete tasks to deadlines
  • Poor academic quality of work submitted
  • Marked changes in concentration
  • Loss of motivation
  • Neglect of personal responsibilities


  • Looking pale
  • Perspiring excessively
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Fainting
  • Muscular spasms
  • Obvious intense pain
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Complaints of sleep problems, or falling asleep in unexpected circumstances
  • Continual episodes of illness, colds, flu, etc.

Emotional and psychological

  • Being tearful or sighing frequently
  • Appearing vague or confused
  • High levels of anxiety or panic attacks
  • Irritability
  • Unpredictable outbursts of anger
  • Displaying agitation
  • Displaying speech patterns that seem pressured, racing, or confused
  • Sustained low mood
  • Frequent expressions of negativity


  • Avoidance of tasks
  • Withdrawing socially or verbally
  • Poor self-care and personal hygiene
  • Being excessively demanding of others
  • Increased impulsive behaviour
  • Talk of suicide
  • Acting aggressively towards self or others

Responding to students at risk

Non-urgent situations

Emotional distress, or mental health concerns with no imminent risk of harm to self or others:

  • Spend some time with the person you are concerned about. Listen and help the person clarify their situation.
  • Try to keep an open mind and put any judgements aside.
  • Explore possible options and encourage the person to take helpful action.
  • Consider whether the person needs a referral to sources of support.
  • Show continuing interest and support.
  • Let them know you will talk with them again and that you have an interest in their wellbeing.

In cases of obvious and elevated emotional distress or mental health concerns, staff can:

  • Contact CAPS at 03 8344 6927 during business hours and ask to speak with a counsellor on duty for consultation and advice. Our standard business hours are 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
  • For mental health support and advice outside of business hours (including 24 hours on weekends and public holidays), students can contact the University's After Hours Mental Health Crisis Support Service (Phone: 1300 219 459, Text: 0480 079 188).

Physical concerns:

  • Advise the student about the University Health Service, or check if they have a local GP. Encourage them to make an appointment for a check up.

Safety concerns:

  • The Safer Community Program (SCP) aims to promote an environment that fosters safe learning, working and living at the University of Melbourne. SCP provides the opportunity to pass on behaviour of concern before it develops into something serious.

Urgent situations

Acute distress or mental health crisis, with imminent risk of harm to self or others:

  • Where appropriate, get backup support by letting a colleague or supervisor know about the situation as soon as possible.
  • Avoid leaving the distressed person alone – ask a colleague to stay with them even if you only have to leave for a small period of time.
  • If using an online platform or phone to communicate with the person, keep the line of communication open if possible and use a phone to call for help.
  • Try to make the person in distress safe. If possible keep them away from windows, staircases, balconies, dangerous objects or chemicals.
  • Contact University Security at 03 8344 6666 and other emergency services as needed. If possible, arrange for someone else to make the call. This leaves you free to focus on the needs of the person who needs assistance. Security will coordinate an appropriate response to the situation, and will also be able to provide back-up support to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Medical emergency:

  • Where appropriate, get backup support by letting a colleague or supervisor know about the situation as soon as possible.
  • Contact University Security at 03 8344 6666.
  • Request an immediate call for medical assistance or an ambulance.
  • Use appropriate first aid strategies.
  • Security will make sure the ambulance and other emergency response teams arrive as soon as possible.


Intervention with students of concern may not be easy, and may leave the helper feeling distressed. Staff and students who are directly involved may need to be supported. Supportive consultation sessions for individuals or groups of staff to debrief can be provided by CAPS. For more information, please call CAPS and request to speak with the senior counsellor on call or manager.