Referring Students to Counselling

Recognising the signs and referring students who may be at risk due to academic or personal difficulties

Students commonly experience varying levels of stress that arise from personal, relationship, family, work and study worries. First year students may particularly struggle with the transition to tertiary study. While many students cope well with stressful situations others may need extra support. Members of the university community who deal with students on a regular basis are well placed to recognise and refer students who may be experiencing difficulties due to academic or personal reasons.

Signs and symptoms of students who may be experiencing difficulties include:

Academic Performance Indicators

  • Marked changes in attendance or marked changes in performance; may change from good grades to uncharacteristic, poor grades of work
  • Assignments that are inappropriately personal (Lecturers to monitor)
  • Requests increase for assignment extensions where formerly deadlines were punctually met
  • Behaviour which regularly interrupts the decorum or management of lectures and/or tutorials
  • Dependency, e.g. the student who tries to make excessive appointments to see lecturers, or phones/emails other students more frequently than normal
  • Inability to make decisions despite your repeated attempts to clarify and to encourage
  • Intense anxiety about coming to university
  • Failure to respond to contacts or messages, especially if this is a change in behaviour

Personal/Social Indicators

  • Marked changes in moods; may change from cooperative to surly, aggressive or teary
  • Marked changes in presentation; may change from neat and tidy to dishevelled and/or erratic
  • Dramatic weight loss or weight gain
  • Showing signs of being under the influence of alcohol/other substances particularly early in the day

Behavioural/Emotional Indicators

  • Persistent 'over the top' behaviour - sudden over-confidence and over-familiarity
  • Impaired speech or garbled, disjointed thoughts
  • High levels of irritability, including unruly, aggressive or violent behaviour
  • Emotions that are displayed to an extreme degree or for a prolonged period of time, e.g. tearfulness, nervousness, fearfulness
  • Self Denigration or very poor self-confidence

Indicators related to possible harm to self/others

  • An explosive outburst of tearfulness or aggression
  • Homicidal threats
  • Expressions of feelings of hopelessness
  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Overtly suicidal thoughts, for example, referring to suicide as a current option

Responding to the Signs

Any unusual or uncharacteristic behaviour by the student, especially if it is sustained over several weeks, can be warning enough that this student may be distressed. If in doubt, ask the student whether they are okay. An expression of concern may provide an opening for them to tell you of their distress.

  • Choose a quiet area to discreetly speak to the student
  • Listen carefully
  • Show concern and interest
  • Avoid criticising or sounding judgmental
  • Consider the Counsellors at the Student Success Centre as a resource and discuss this referral with the student.
  • Talk to the student about their perceptions of counselling and try to dispel many commonly held myths
  • Reassure that counselling is free and confidential
  • If the student resists help and you are concerned, contact the Student Success Centre on or phone 07 4930 9456 or contact your nearest campus to discuss your concerns
  • Remember, that you don't have to solve the problem for the student.

Guidelines for making a referral to Counselling

  • Suggest that the student contact the counselling team during office hours from Monday to Friday, 8.30 am to 4.30 pm (AEST) via phone (07 4930 9456), email (, or visiting a campus near them.
  • Suggest that the student contact the CQUni Out of Hours Student Support Line (Phone 1300 226 987 or text 0480 097 747), available outside office hours from Monday to Friday, 4.30 pm to 8.30 am (AEST), and on Weekends and Public Holidays.
  • If you wish to assist the student directly, phone the Counsellor team while the student is with you in order to ensure that an appointment is made. Write down the appointment information (time, date, counsellor and location) for the student
  • If the situation is an emergency, follow the steps above but let the Counsellor or reception know that this is an emergency and that "the student needs an appointment immediately"
  • Sometimes it is helpful to accompany the student to meet up with the counsellor. Students value additional assistance when appropriate
  • If you are concerned about a student but feel uncertain about the appropriateness of referral you are very welcome to call the Counsellors and discuss this
  • Be aware that a request for your pledge of confidentiality must be rejected when a duty of care is involved, as in the case of self-harm, or real/ potential harm to another person

This information has been compiled by Counsellors at CQUniversity and with permission, from information from the Health and Counselling website at Massey University, New Zealand. 2006.