Carnegie Mellon University

I am a peer concerned for another CMU student

Make Note of Changes

An important part of your experience at CMU is the relationships that you develop with your peers. Part of caring for peers is paying attention to how they are doing emotionally and physically.

Students and developing adults experience a range of emotions, including stress. It is important to be aware when someone is in distress, manifesting itself in ways that affect lifestyle or normal function.

Distress feels different for everybody.  As a friend, you may notice when someone is in distress when you notice changes in their normal routine or way of thinking or feeling.

Here is a list of symptoms or changes you may observe.  This list is not exhaustive but it can give you a good starting point on things to pay attention to:

  • Sleep – difficulties falling asleep, difficulties sleeping throughout the night, sleeping too much, not wanting to get out of bed, avoiding sleep by staying up all night.
  • Appetite – eating more, eating less, or choosing foods different from normal habits.
  • Social Withdrawal – withdrawing from family and friends (not wanting to talk to them or see them), staying by oneself, avoiding social situations, avoiding classes.
  • Focus/Concentration – difficulty paying attention in class, difficulties focusing on assignments, having to reread the same paragraph over and over again in order to understand the reading.
  • Mood – sad, irritable, anxious, restless, worried, hopeless.
  • Energy Level – sustained decrease in energy level and motivation, or having too much energy (e.g., unable to sleep or turn off thoughts).
  • Behavior Changes – acting differently than usual (e.g., talking back at people, “not caring” attitude, not performing as usual, not engaging in activities formally enjoyed, increased substance abuse, engaging in other self destructive behavior).

How you can help

If you have identified a friend who you think is in distress or going through a tough time, or a friend has approached you seeking support, here are a few suggestions on how to help.

  • Take the person aside and talk to him/her in private. Try to give the other person your undivided attention. Just a few minutes of listening might enable him or her to make a decision about what to do.
  • Be honest and direct, but nonjudgmental. Take the initiative to ask what is troubling your friend and attempt to overcome reluctance to talk about it.
  • 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."
  • Listen carefully and with sensitivity. Listen in an open minded and nonjudgmental way.
  • Note that distress often comes from conflicting feelings or demands. Acknowledge this, and from time to time, paraphrase what the other person is saying, which communicates your efforts to support and understand him/her. 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."
  • Encourage. Encourage the person to take care of themselves, to be around friends, to sleep, to engage in activities that are enjoyable to them.  Moreover,  keep the lines of communication open so they feel comfortable talking to you again.  
  • Make a referral. Encourage the person to consider visiting CaPS when their distress does not decrease within an appropriate period of time or it increases, when they seem to be struggling to reach out for help, or when  you feel your ability to assist has reached its limit. Consider offering to call CaPS with them or walk over with them if they are in immediate need of support. Please call ahead if possible.
  • Follow up. Let the person know that you'll be checking back with him or her later to see how things turned out.
  • Responding in a caring way. This can help the person feel less lonely and more hopeful. It can also prevent the distressed person's situation from escalating into a crisis.

Get Crisis Support

A crisis is subjective and personal and it can range from mild to life-threatening. When a person is in an emotional crisis, it should always be taken seriously and we encourage you to respond in a caring and immediate way. Here are a few examples of what you may see or hear from a person going through a crisis:

  • Extreme agitation or panic
  • References to or threats of suicide, or other types of self-harm
  • Threats of assault, both verbal and physical
  • Highly disruptive behavior: physical or verbal hostility, violence, destruction of property
  • Inability to communicate (e.g., slurred or garbled speech, disjointed thoughts)
  • Disorientation, confusion, loss of contact with conventional reality

Call immediately for assistance if someone you know is exhibiting some of the above behaviors or you believe the person might harm him/herself or someone else. If it feels safe to do so, remain with the person until she or he is connected to professional help.  Phone numbers to use:

If student resides on campus, call CMU Police at 412-268-2323.

If student resides off campus, call Pittsburgh Police at 911 (if calling from Pittsburgh area) or 412-255-2927 (if calling from out of town).

Take care of yourself

We encourage students to be active members of the CMU community, attending to and caring for others around you. However, we also want you to take care of yourself and maintain healthy boundaries. Your own well-being is as important as that of the person in distress. In helping others, it is important to be aware of your own needs and recognize the limits of what you can or cannot do.

You don’t have to do this alone. If you are genuinely concerned for someone or you see someone in distress, it may be a good idea to contact someone else to share your concerns with (e.g., friends, staff member, family member, professor, coach, therapist).

You may contact CaPS directly to seek advice on how to handle the situation.

CaPS 24/7 After-hours Support: 412-268-2922
You can also stop by our office during regular hours, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.