Refer a student to the Counselling Service

Updated on 7 July 2023

Learn when and how to refer a student to the Counselling Service if you are a member of staff

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The Counselling Service is part of a network of student and staff support. For the most part other supportive services are all that students require to achieve their full potential and cope effectively with university. However there are times when the Counselling Service can play a useful role.

When to refer

It is not always easy to decide when to refer. Much depends on your relationship with the person, your knowledge of their difficulties, your confidence in helping them, your awareness of what the Counselling Service has to offer and the expectations and boundaries of your defined role (for example, as personal tutor). 

Everyone, including students, varies in their capacity to manage social, personal or work-related difficulties. Most people resolve difficulties quickly but some suffer more acute or prolonged distress and find situations hard to handle. The following examples may be helpful:

Academic problems

You may wish to refer students who are experiencing severe problems with their work, where you suspect that there may be other issues. If possible we would prefer to see these students early rather than late.

If we are currently seeing a student, or perhaps have seen the student recently for counselling - and if he or she agrees - we can provide written support for some discretion to be exercised in examinations (e.g. extra time) or in assessments.

However, we don't provide written support either retrospectively or for a student who has had no previous contact with us. Sending such a person to us primarily for written evidence of their current or past situation is not generally helpful. (The student often resents coming and usually doesn't want to engage in the counselling process).

Personal problems

Some students with personal problems may need more and more of your time. You might wish to get in touch with the Service. This could be a phone call to one of us for advice on how to handle the situation or on how to suggest to the student that they seek counselling.

Sometimes students with difficult behavioural or emotional problems are referred to the Service, because they are very confused and other people are at a loss to help them. In these circumstances we would obviously be concerned and want to be of assistance. Sometimes we can pool our knowledge and experience, and support staff and others who are trying to manage a difficult situation.

Occasionally students are too unhappy or disturbed to make good use of their time at the University. In these situations we will do our best to provide information on other services and how to access them. If there are medical or psychiatric issues then referral to the University Health Service is usually more appropriate.

However it is unreasonable to expect us to see people who have not sought and do not want counselling. Also it is not in our remit to provide counselling where this is a condition for the resolution to a non-counselling matter (e.g. disciplinary).

When a crisis occurs, not only the student but also the helper can feel panicked, and see referral to us as the only way forward. You may feel pressured by the student's distress, or feel upset by their plight. But referral may not always be necessary. Most students have sufficient personal resources to solve their problems, given time and an opportunity to talk things over with someone who is prepared to listen. If the person is asking you to come up with an instant solution try not to feel pressured into providing one. If you feel that the situation raises problematic issues, please discuss these with the student and decide together whether referral would be helpful.

Occasionally a crisis is a more general welfare matter and not one where an individual is seeking help (e.g. the sudden death, a serious accident or a police matter). The appropriate course of action is to contact the Emergency Services (Main Campus, Westpark, Taypark Ext 4141, Ninewells Ext 2222, Kirkcaldy Ext 9999) or contact Campus Security who are available 24 hours a day on 01382 385850.

How to refer a student to Counselling

The first step is to discuss referral with the student. Let the student know that this is an option, and be open as to why you think this is a reasonable step to take. Explain what you are still prepared to offer in terms of support, and agree a time when the student can come back to you, if that is appropriate. This way you will reduce possible feelings of guilt or failure on either side.

If the student is willing to go to counselling the process will be easier if you explain how to access the Service. Some people are reluctant to seek help because of anxiety as to where and who we are and what might happen, or because of preconceived ideas about counselling. Giving a copy of our information leaflet to the student can help. Alternatively suggest that they look at our web site. Offering to accompany someone who is shy or reluctant can help with some of the anxiety, but forcing the student is usually counter-productive. Try not to raise expectations. The waiting time for a first appointment, which has to match the student's timetable, can be up to a fortnight. In an emergency we do our best to see someone quickly, if possible the same day.

  • Confidentiality. In almost all circumstances we are unable to pass on any information about a student without their consent. We are bound by our own Code of Practice, approved by Court, and by the Codes of Ethics and Practice of our professional bodies. There are one or two exceptions, as set out in our guidelines on confidentiality (copies from our office).
  • Other roles. If you are not sure about referring someone please contact us. We can also act in a consultancy role to relieve some of your concerns and the pressure you may feel when helping someone in personal difficulties. We welcome requests to talk to groups of staff about the Service.
  • Staff counselling Finally, we have a responsibility to provide counselling for the whole University - both staff and students - so you also are welcome to make use of the Service to explore any personal or work-related issues.
Guide category Staff support