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Student Support Services

Umbrella Project

Module 4: Identifying and Supporting Struggling Students

In this module, we’ll cover some practical strategies that you can use to support students who may be struggling with their substance use. We’ll also identify some supports available on and off campus.

Identifying Struggling Students

Welcome to the fourth and final module. We're going to take all the information you learned in the last three modules and learn how to apply it in real life.

Watch the introduction video below or read the text below to see what you will learn in this module.

By the end of this module you will have the following:

  • A greater understanding of the important role you play.
  • The ability to identify students who need support.
  • The skills to communicate your concerns effectively.
  • The skills to work with a denial system.
  • You'll also know the supports available on and off campus.

Your Unique Position

As a faculty or staff member, you interact with a large number of students. Watch the video or read the text below to learn about your unique position for helping students.

All students experience difficulties from time to time in college. While many students are able to address their concerns as they occur, other students continue to struggle.

The National College Health Assessment data (American College Health Association) shows that there is a gap between the number of students who report having mental health concerns and those who report having actually received mental health support. The longer these concerns go unaddressed, the more they impact the student's mental health and their ability to learn. Students will therefore need to spend more and more time and energy trying to cope.

We have the ability to build campus community capacity to support students earlier, before their concerns become more serious. The faculty and staff members interact with a large number of students on campus throughout the course of their day, and they are in the best position to notice early signs of a student struggling.

Signs and Symptoms

Watch the video or read the text below to learn about the sign and symptoms of problematic use.

As you have learned in earlier modules, the use of alcohol and other drugs is sometimes used as a coping strategy and ongoing use may lead to habitual and problematic use or substance use disorders. Using at these levels requires more money and more time, which would have typically been used for other social demands and expectations, from family, friends, school, or the wider community.

When a student’s use has gotten to the habitual or harmful stage, their decisions are driven by being able to obtain the substance, use the substance, and recover from the substance. At this point, a student’s use will start directly impacting their relationships, responsibilities, and the ability to take care of them self.

Ultimately, you do not need to know for sure that the student is at a problematic stage of use or has a substance use disorder to be able to inquire about their wellbeing. If you are concerned about a student’s physical and/or mental health, reaching out and expressing that concern provides the student with an opportunity to receive support.

Signs of Problematic Use

Signs that a student’s substance use has become harmful, habitual, or problematic include the following behaviours:

  • Using to cope with negative moods.
  • Using daily. Using before or during school/work.
  • Using while driving or during vigorous physical activities.
  • Using more than one substance at the same time.
  • Using is their major form of recreation.
  • Unexplained changes in their presentation (personality, physical appearance, and hygiene.)

Signs Use Is Less Likely to Be Problematic

Signs that a student’s patterns of use are less likely to be harmful, habitual, or problematic include the following behaviours:

  • Taking precautions when using.
  • Being careful to only use in small or moderate amounts.
  • Using less frequently and only in particular contexts.
  • Being able to stop using at any time.

Supporting Struggling Students

  • Remember that students control their own lives. Avoid arguing with the students who are reluctant to change and focus on building their confidence and sense of self-efficacy..
  • Help students see the discrepancy. Explore the difference between how their life is now, including the problems they are having, with the way they want their life to be.
  • Use techniques to express your concerns.Using techniques such as open-ended questions and reflective listening can help you communicate effectively with students who are struggling.
  • Anticipate denial. Students who are having difficulty changing may gave react with anger, justifying, blaming, and other forms of defensive behaviour. Expect this and keep on track.

Objectives for Your Conversations

There are four main objectives to guide your conversation with a student: expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, rolling with resistance, and supporting self-efficacy. Watch the video or read the text below to learn more about these objectives.

Expressing Empathy video transcript

Empathy is about building a good rapport through an accepting non-judgmental approach. It involves trying to understand the young person's point of view while drawing out their reflections about their situation and what they would like to change. Without a respectful relationship, it will be difficult to help a young person move towards positive changes.

  • Do: Be accepting, understanding and encouraging; make the young person feel comfortable and at ease; and use reflective listening.
  • Don’t: Judge, preach, blame, or criticize; use labels such as “alcoholic” or “drug addict”; or do more than 50% of the talking.
Developing Discrepancy video transcript

Discrepancy is the feeling that a behavior is out of line with a goal or value. Young people are more likely to be motivated to change a problematic behavior when they see a difference or discrepancy between the way their life is right now, e.g. their current use of alcohol or other drugs and any related problems, and the way they'd like their life to be. The aim is to amplify this difference and help the young person explore the present situation in relation to what is wanted and valued so they can identify their own reasons for change.

Roll with Resistance video transcript

Rolling with resistant means avoiding arguments with a student who challenges their need to change. It means acknowledging that the youth is ultimately the one who will make the decisions about their health and well-being.

Showing respect for what the student thinks is more helpful than trying to force or convince them. Focus on showing interest in what they have to say and on being non-judgmental. Express the desire to understand and accept, but not necessarily agree with, reasons for their behavior and for their choices.

Supporting Self-Efficacy video transcript

Self-efficacy means believing in yourself and your abilities. It's about knowing or trusting that you can succeed at setting and achieving a goal. Many people are more likely to follow through with a change in behavior if they believe they've freely chosen to make the change and that they can accomplish the change. It's important to help students build confidence by doing the following:

  • remaining optimistic
  • reminding them of their strengths and past successes
  • affirming all their efforts to make changes, no matter how big or small

Communication Skills to Express Concerns

If you are talking to a student who is struggling, there are skills that can help you communicate with them effectively. Complete the activity or read the text below to learn communication skills.

How to Express Concerns to Students activity transcript

Open-ended questions require a student to explain something. They often start with one of the five W's:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why

Closed questions, on the other hand, start with the words such as ‘do’ and ‘don't’ and ask for a very specific yes-or-no answer.

  • Closed question: “Don’t you think using drugs is a problem?”
  • Open-ended question: “What are some of the things that concern you about using drugs?”

Using open-ended questions can help a student think through their situation and weigh their desire to change. This is an effective way to pull out detailed information because it requires them to think more about what they're saying. They might also make statements that may serve as internal motivation to change.

Giving affirmations involves using statements of appreciation and understanding to express confidence in the student’s ability to continue positive behaviors or to make positive change.


“It’s hard to talk about ___. I really appreciate your keeping on with this.”

These statements can help to create a supportive atmosphere and build rapport with the student. Recognizing a student's strengths and efforts to make change helps them build confidence and affirming self motivating statements encourages readiness to change.

Reflective listening involves listening to what the student says, and then restating it back to them to show that you have understood. It reinforces the students own positive statements about change and offers insight by highlighting the student’s own words.

  • Student: “I can’t keep spending all my money on booze”
  • Response: “You have been spending more money on alcohol than you can afford.”

For reflective listening to be effective, it is important to pay attention to those areas where the student expresses discrepancy between their desires and their current situation. Focus on the positive things the student said about changing, emphasizing the change talk. If only negatives about changing are mentioned, we can explore what it might take for the student to consider changing or why they think change is not an option.

Summarizing is a way of gathering what a student has said to prepare them to move on. Summaries serve to remind the student about major discussion points, their plan of action, and their reasons for taking action.

If the student slows or stops talking, summaries can help them continue. They may also help to remind the student of what they said or point out a connection between statements.

Keep the summary short and succinct. Summaries often include:

  • Specific problems or behaviours that were discussed.
  • Their most important reasons for wanting to change.
  • What their plan of action looks like, including measures of success and incentives or sanctions for completing or not completing the action.
  • The date and time of next contact.

Reacting to Struggling Students

Watch the video or read the text below to learn how to avoid the traps that we can sometimes fall into when reacting to other people.

When we know someone who is struggling with substance use, we naturally have one of two reactions: anger or fear. Though each reaction looks different, both are coming from a place of concern and wanting the person to stop using in ways that are negatively impacting their life.

Reacting from a place of anger includes the following behaviour:

  • shaming
  • blaming
  • threatening
  • the silent treatment
  • punishing
  • marking assignments harshly
  • making sarcastic comments
  • singling them out in class

Reacting from a place of fear includes the following behaviour:

  • justifying
  • making excuses
  • giving undeserving marks
  • giving money
  • passing the student despite expectations not being met

When we react from anger, we inadvertently send the message to the student, “you are bad,” “you are undeserving,” “you are unworthy.” When we act out of fear, we inadvertently send the message to the student, “you are not capable,” “you are not competent,” “you can't do anything without my help.”

It is easy to start from one emotional place and switch to the other when the person doesn't make the changes we feel they should. It is important to step outside these emotions of anger and fear, and start making decisions from a fact-based place.

It can be helpful to remember the three C's:

  • Cause: you didn't cause the use.
  • Control: you can't control the use.
  • Cope: you can learn to cope regardless of the student’s use.

When we have a less emotional reaction, we can send a more motivating message to the student struggling: “I care about you and I know that you are capable of figuring this out. I am willing to listen to your problem without making it mine to solve.”

The following strategies can be helpful when supporting a student who is struggling:

  • active listening
  • providing choices
  • stating boundaries
  • making expectations and consequences clear
  • not doing anything that the student can do for themselves

Understanding Denial

Watch the video or read the text below to learn about how people can react when they are having difficulty changing.

Think about a time where you really wanted to change something in your life, such as going to the gym, eating healthier, or being more assertive at work. You knew why you wanted to make the change. You had plans in place to make it happen, but no matter how hard you tried to make that change, you couldn't. What feelings come up for you when this happens?

With all those feelings inside, what might be your reaction if someone asks you how you’re doing with the changes or suggests that you should do more towards changing or is upset that you're not making the changes you said you would?

The natural reactions you might have include the following:

  • minimizing
  • justifying
  • blaming
  • rationalization
  • anger
  • avoidance
  • silence
  • compliance
  • sarcasm

We all have a natural defense system that protects us from emotional pain and discomfort. These unconscious reactions often come up when people want to change their use, discover that they're not able to, and start experiencing a loss of control around their use.

These defenses serve two purposes:

  • They help push people away who may discover what this person already feels like they are: hopeless, stupid, incompetent.
  • They protect the person from facing the intense fear of what might happen physically, psychologically, socially if they no longer have that substance in their life.

Once you can recognize the defense mechanisms in others, there will be no need to attempt to eliminate the defense. Keep on track of passing on your concerns in a compassionate and non-judgmental way.


On-Campus Consultations

Harm Reduction Consultation

Students can request a harm reduction consultation if they want information for themselves or to support someone else. Each student is given an intake appointment with a Counsellor and the Harm Reduction Consultant. Consultations can be scheduled through the Welcome Centre in the following ways:

  • In person on the 3rd floor Student Commons, E building
  • By phone at 613-727-4723 ext. 7200

On-Campus Services

Off-Campus Support

Online Support

Further Reading