Scanning for Wellness

UC faculty/staff and graduate teaching/research assistants are in a unique position to demonstrate compassion to UC students in distress.

Both undergraduate and graduate students may feel alone, isolated, and even hopeless when faced with academic and life challenges. These feelings can easily disrupt academic performance and may lead to dysfunctional coping and other serious consequences.

You may be the first person to notice a student in distress since you have frequent and prolonged contact with them. The University, in collaboration with the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), requests that you act with compassion in your dealings with such students.

The ABCD’s of Assessment (aka…scanning for wellness, which can include a quick visual, behavioral and cognitive “check-in” to determine how students are doing…

  • Appearance             What are they wearing? How do they look?
  • Behavior                  What are they doing? How are they spending their time?
  • Cognition                 What are they thinking?

Danger? Do they pose a danger to themselves or anyone else? Are there safety risk indicators?

All advisors should regularly review Faculty/Staff Reference to Assist Students in Distress 

Retrieved from the Gold Folder:

Indicators of Distress: What to look for…Be aware of the following indicators of distress. Look for groupings, frequency, duration and severity – not just isolated symptoms.

  • Academic Indicators (performance based)
  • Physical Indicators (appearance and interaction based)
  • Psychological Indicators (emotional, verbal, expressive)
  • Safety Risk Indicators (hostility, threats, violence, assault, rage, staking, harassing, isolation, harm to self or others…)

Creating Rapport

As you interact with students, use your “attending Skills” to create rapport and understanding (Please consult with the Berkeley International Office for tips on inter-cultural communication best practices).

  • Orienting physically with full undivided attention
  • Squarely face the student/Lean in
  • Eye Contact
  • Demonstrate focused attention by not moving around
  • Encourage verbalizations
  • Pay attention to non-verbal communication (what is the student’s body language saying?)

Help with Difficult Situations

Students exhibiting troubling behaviors in your presence are likely having difficulties in various settings including in the classroom, with roommates, with family, and even in social settings. Trust your instincts and consult with someone if a student leaves you feeling worried, alarmed, or threatened.

When a student appears distressed you can be empathetic and supportive by asking…

“Are you ok? I understand this is difficult.”

In these circumstances students will often ask many questions, if the questions are rational give a simple answer.

You can be direct…

“Let me get someone who can help…How about we take a break and reschedule…Please lower your voice.”

If the student is non- compliant it’s ok to set limits.

If you need it, call for help.

Consult and Get Help

For Emergency Support

Call UCPD: 911 or (510) 642-3333

For After Hours Support Call: (855) 817-5667

National Crisis Help line: (800) 273-TALK

For Consultation

If you are uncertain how to respond, counselors are available

Daytime: (510) 642-9494

After hours: (855) 817-5667

For Concerns about faculty or staff

Contact CARE Services: (510) 643-7754

Active Listening 101


Tuning out everything and focusing on the person who is talking

Trying to understand what the person is saying (content) and what he/she is feeling (affect)

Putting your understanding of the message into your own words and feeding it back to the person for verification

Delivering a message that is not an evaluation, opinion, or advice


Open-ended Questions

Questions that encourage the person to talk more

Often begin with…what, how and what else…

The function of open questions: Encourages the person to elaborate on a point or explore a point further. To lead the conversation into a more personal, here-and-now mode


What’s going on with you? What would you like to talk about? How are you feeling? What is it about the situation that bothers you? What options do you have for dealing with this situation?

Closed-ended Questions

Questions that are meant to elicit specific information – usually a person can respond to these questions with just one or a few words

Often begin with…are, do, did or could…


Are you missing home? Are you feeling sad? When did you start feeling this way?

Some things to consider:

Be careful of using “why” questions because it can put the other person on the defensive. The personal may feel that they have to explain or justify themselves.

For example: Why are you missing your family so much?

Minimal encouragement also moves the conversation along. Simple nonverbal (e.g., head nodding, smiling) and verbal (e.g., “uh-huh”, “go on”) cues may be all a student needs to keep talking or open up more.

Silence is often a useful minimal encouragement. Sometimes being patient and not asking questions to fill the silence allows the person to think, talk, and explore more than they might otherwise.


Involves stating, in your own words, what a speaker’s verbal message means to you.

Purpose is:

  • To keep your focus on the speaker
  • To let the speaker know you are trying to understand his/her message
  • To encourage him/her to continue talking
  • To help the speaker communicate more clearly

A good paraphrase: Captures the essence of what the person has said

Conveys the same meaning but usually uses different words

  • Is brief
  • Is clear and concise
  • Is tentative

Examples of Paraphrasing:

Student: I have just been feeling so tired and unmotivated to do school work. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Staff: It sounds like you’ve been having a really hard time and are confused about what’s going on with you.

Student: I’m really nervous about this assignment that’s due next week. I haven’t started studying for it and don’t even know where to start.

Staff: So you’re nervous about the assignment and not sure how to prepare for it.

Student: I really miss home. I can’t concentrate on anything. I’m having a really hard time focusing in class too because I can’t stop thinking about my family.

Staff: So what I’m hearing you say is that you’re homesick, and that it’s interfering with your experience here at Cal.

Student: I just don’t like my roommate. She makes too much noise and she’s really messy. She snores really loud and she leaves her stuff all over the room.

Staff: So there are a lot of things that are bothering you about your roommate.


A method of feeding back the speaker’s nonverbal and verbal message.

Tends to focus more on the emotional content of the message.

Important to pay attention to nonverbal cues like tone, facial expression, body posture, etc.

Examples of Reflecting:

Student: I can’t believe I did poorly on that test! I did everything I could to prepare for it. I studied all night last night!

Staff: It sounds like your feeling really frustrated!

Student: I can’t stop thinking about my boyfriend I just wish I could see him. I haven’t told anybody this, but I’ve been crying myself to sleep every night.

Staff: I can hear just how much you miss your boyfriend and that you’ve been feeling really sad.

Student: You have no idea what I’m going through…nobody here does. I’ve tried talking to people here and nobody gets it!

Staff: So you’re feeling misunderstood…and maybe really alone too.

For More information contact: Aaron S. Cohen, Ph.D. and Paige Lee, Ph.D., University Health Services

BACK to Practice

Ever had someone observe your advising interactions who can provide coaching, direction and feedback? Do you have a supportive network for talking about complex cases?

How might you improve your listening skills and other communications skills?

Do you feel comfortable “scanning” for wellness on a regular basis?

Are emergency contact numbers posted in your office for easy reference?

Have you visited and are you familiar with UHS counseling staff?

UHS Resources

Do you know what the signs of depression are? 

Look for the Signs

Are you familiar with the wide range of resources for students at UHS? If a student complained of insomnia, for example, would you know how to direct them to the “insomnia self-care guide” at UHS?

Helpful Handouts

Are you familiar with emergency response protocols?

Gold Folder

Wanna help students build resilience? Did you know there’s a resilience quiz available at the Be Well to Do Well website?

Be Well to Do Well

Go Further


Active Listening: How to be a great listener.


How to Listen to Pain_A Q&A with Brene Brown about her new book, Rising Strong

Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People