Student Distress Guide and mental health first aid

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week, 9 to 10 October which aims to help increase awareness of wellbeing and remove the stigma around mental health. We ask Director of Student Success Liz Keneti about the new Student Distress Guide, currently in production, and  include an extract below about mental health first aid. 

See more information below if you, a colleague, friend, family member or student need support now.

Q. Talofa Liz. What is the new Students in Distress Guide and who is it for?

A. The Distress Guide aims to prepare staff for students in a distressed psychological or emotional state. By knowing what to look for and how to respond, staff can have a tremendous effect on the wellbeing and success of students.

Q. Who has helped develop the guide?

A. The UC Health Centre and Student Care team were involved early on to help inform the development of the Guide, but feedback on drafts has been sought widely, from College Advisors and Library staff to PDT, MDT and the UC Chaplaincy.

Q.What would you suggest to people who say ‘I’m not an expert. How can I possibly do the right thing when helping a student in distress’?

A. Just like medical first aid, mental health first aid is something that all staff can do to help students in need.  The essential message of the Guide really comes down to noticing students in distress, reaching out to them to express warmth, sympathy and reassurance, and knowing where to refer them to get specialist help.

At the same time, it is crucial for staff to be aware of their own limits with the kind of help they can offer. For any staff who don’t feel comfortable, or for any who simply lack the time, Student Care, Māori Student Development Team or Pacific Development Team advisors can be contacted to reach out. The Guide also contains important information on privacy and what student information can and can’t be shared with other staff.

Q.How will I be able to get a copy of the guide when it is printed and distributed?

A.Keep an eye out in Intercom for more details, but copies will be sent out widely to staff in November.

Extract from Student Distress Guide:

Mental health first aid

 Mental health first aid (MHFA) involves responding with compassion to people experiencing distress or trauma in order to address their practical needs and concerns and reduce their suffering. It is not professional counselling and does not involve detailed discussion of the circumstances that are causing distress.

Applying mental health first aid

  1. Listen to what is being said. Stay calm and focused. Use active listening techniques, such as reflecting what the student says back to them, to help them feel heard.
  2. Express warmth, sympathy, concern, and reassurance. For example, you might tell the student that it is OK for them to feel embarrassed or not really know what their needs are at this time.
  3. Communicate softly, clearly, and slowly. Try and determine if the person is absorbing what is being said. If it would help, write down the steps you recommend for the student.
  4. Help calm them. If the student is overwhelmed, agitated, or distraught, help calm them by remaining calm, quiet, and present. Try and direct their focus towards manageable feelings, thoughts, and goals. You might suggest calming techniques such as slowing their breathing.
  5. Naming and prioritising concerns. Consider helping the student identify and prioritise any immediate needs and concerns.
  6. Refer the student to where they can receive further help. Follow up with them afterwards to see if they made contact with the referred service.

For students in a state of psychological or emotional distress, the primary referral point is the UC Health Centre. This never changes. It is located at the rear of the UCSA carpark beside The Foundry bar. Phone: +64 3 369 4444

 Note: if a student does not wish to accept your help, you must respect their decision unless there is a risk of imminent harm to themselves or others. What to do if there is such a risk is covered later in the guide.


Need support now?

  • If you are concerned about yourself or someone, such as a colleague or student, ask about how they are doing and listen – you don’t need to be an expert.
  • If you are still concerned, suggest they contact a professional service such as their family doctor. The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand Mauri tū, Mauri ora has excellent advice at Look for the ‘in crisis’ button.
  • Students can attend the UC Health Centre or Student Care. If you refer a student do check-in with them soon afterwards to see how they got on. These sorts of actions show you care, help remove the stigma around mental health and encourage others to get the help they need.