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The University of Texas at Austin - What Starts Here Changes The World The University of Texas at Austin Division of Student Affairs

When a Friend is in Distress


A crisis is a situation in which a person's coping mechanisms are no longer working. By definition, it is a highly unpleasant emotional state. The nature of a crisis can be highly subjective and personal, and its severity can range from mild to life-threatening. But regardless of its nature, a crisis should always be taken seriously and responded to as swiftly as possible. When a person is in a state of emotional crisis, you might see or hear the following:

What you should do:

If someone you know is exhibiting some of the above behaviors-particularly if you believe there exists imminent danger that the person might harm either themself or someone else - you should immediately call for assistance (on campus, call UTPD at 512-471-4441; off campus, call 911). If you are unsure how to respond to the situation, call the Behavior Concerns Advice Line at 512-232-5050.

You should not take it upon yourself to approach someone who is highly agitated or violent or decide by yourself what is in the person's best interests. For your safety - as well as that of others and the person in distress - those decisions should be left to trained professionals.

Protecting your own safety and wellbeing. Recognizing the limits of what you can and can't do:

In dealing with a distressed person, your own safety and wellbeing are just as important as that of the person in distress. Recognizing the limits of what you can and can't do to help someone else is a crucial part of this.

What you can do:

What you can't do:

Although everyone feels "stressed" at times, excessive stress (i.e., distress) can manifest itself in a number of ways. Although the following list is by no means exhaustive, you should suspect that a person might be distressed if any of the following apply to them:

How to help:

Suicide Warning Signs

988 - National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Below are several suggestions about what to do for a distressed person for whom you are concerned - or if such a person comes to you.

Take the person aside and talk to them in private. Try to give the other person your undivided attention. Just a few minutes of listening might enable them to make a decision about what to do.

Listen carefully and with sensitivity. Listen in an open minded and nonjudgmental way.

Be honest and direct, but nonjudgmental. Share what you have observed and why it concerns you. For example: "I've noticed that you've been missing class a lot lately and you aren't answering your phone or text messages like you used to. I'm worried about you."

Note that distress often comes from conflicting feelings or demands. Acknowledge this, and from time to time, paraphrase what the other person is saying. For example: "It sounds like on the one hand, you very much want to please your family but on the other hand, you aren't sure that what they want for you is what you really want to do."

Make a referral. Direct the person to the Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC). Encourage them to call and make an appointment right then and there. Even better yet: offer to accompany them to CMHC.

Follow up. Let the person know that you'll be checking back with them later to see how things turned out.

Responding in a caring way to a person in distress can help prevent the distressed person's situation from escalating into a crisis.

Supporting a friend with a mental health concern can be one of the most important parts of their success in dealing with it.

A final reminder:

When responding to a person in need, you don't have to do it all alone! When in doubt about how to handle a crisis situation, you can always enlist the help of the Behavior Concerns Advice Line (512-232-5050). This line is staffed 24 hours/day, 7 days/week by trained professionals.

Information about our Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention Program
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