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Is the situation urgent?

Is there a risk of suicide, self-harm, or harm to others? Has the student stopped functioning academically or socially, e.g. not getting out of bed in the morning? If so, call the College Nurse, the student's GP, or the University Counselling Service. In exceptional circumstances, a GP can visit without the student's permission. You may need to accompany the student to the nurse or doctor, or help by allowing them to phone from your room. If there is imminent danger of harm, call an ambulance or the police.

Most people experience periods of stress and personal difficulty at some point in their lives. Deadlines, examinations, worries about achieving the required standard, and the pressures of short terms can quickly transform into problems that affect academic progress. Leaving home, family problems, relationship break-up, being ill, experiencing discrimination, pregnancy, and use of recreational drugs and alcohol are other causes of stress.

The University and the Colleges have a duty of care to students. The tutorial system provides an excellent way of fulfilling this duty, but it is important to know your limits, and to know when to seek extra help or information. This section will help you identify students who are experiencing personal difficulties, provide some practical advice on responding effectively, and point you to other sources of support. Don't forget, an early referral to a student's GP can be helpful.

The Senior Tutor’s committee has produced the following guidance, which considers these issues in greater depth:

Identifying difficulties

  • Persistent absence
  • Missing deadlines
  • Dramatic drops in academic performance
  • Doing too little work, or too much, but ineffectively
  • Being tense, sad, or miserable
  • Erratic, loud, agitated or aggressive behaviour
  • Being withdrawn or very quiet
  • Unkempt appearance, poor personal hygiene, weight loss or gain


What you should do

Talk to the student to find out more. Asking what has helped in the past is a good way of finding out where to direct the student. You may find they are already seeking personal support such as counselling, or medical help. Showing your concern may reassure them and allay your own worries.

Offering support

You may be able to offer help that goes a long way to solve the problem. Listening and offering reassurance may be enough. If it's about academic matters (study skills or time management, for example), then helping may be well within your skills and knowledge. But don't get out of your depth by providing emotional support that goes beyond the boundaries of your role; it is time-consuming and demanding, and there are specialists (including GPs) whose job it is. Be clear with the student about what you can and cannot do. Making the right referral may be the correct step.

It may be that a student has sought advice from a counsellor, nurse, or doctor who then contacts you (with the student's permission) to discuss ways of helping her/him manage their work when experiencing personal difficulty.

Making referrals

These are some of the services to which you might refer your students:

The University Counselling Service

The Counselling Service helps people solve their personal problems away from their College or Department/Faculty environment. They publish two leaflets aimed at tutors:

Copies of both have been distributed to colleges and are available online via the above links.

The Counselling Service has a policy of strict confidentiality, which is maintained in the procedures through which Colleges fund long-term counselling (more than 16 sessions) for individuals. The policy does not necessarily preclude contact between tutor and counsellor, but this is made only with the student's consent. The General Information for Tutors leaflet deals with this at greater length.

The Service will do its best to offer same-day appointments for urgent situations. Subject to the need for confidentiality, you can let the Counselling Service know if you think a student needs a quick response.

There are also two Mental Health Advisors (details as below), who are available to support students with mental health difficulties and advise those working with them.

University Counselling Service
13/14 Trumpington Street
Cambridge CB2 1QA
01223 332865

The Equality Act (2010)

The Equality Act protects people with mental health difficulties when their impairment is substantial and long-term. In such cases there will be a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments and not to treat less favourably. Experiencing short term personal and emotional problems does not bring protection under the Act.