How to help a distressed colleague

When to be concerned
We work and study in a challenging environment and are constantly striving for excellence and high performance, a situation that can contribute to stress. We all cope with stress in different ways at different times. We might become irritable, overwhelmed, anxious, tired, depressed, or demoralized. For the psychologically vulnerable, this may be too much to tolerate without losing control, which can sometimes lead to tragic results.
While there is no clear way to predict behavior, Tom Robbins, the Executive Director of Public Safety and the Chief of the BU Police, says, “People don’t suddenly ‘go crazy’—there is usually an escalating pattern leading up to violent behavior that people see before the actual event. It therefore may be preventable.”

Signs and symptoms of distress or trouble

  • Extreme anxiety or panic
  • Increased irritability, anger, rage, or other aggressive behavior
  • Conversations, e-mails, or other written material with themes of hopelessness, social isolation, rage, or despair
  • Bizarre, irrational, or paranoid thinking
  • Direct suicidal thoughts or statements
  • Expressing a wish or intent to injure others
  • Talk of guns, bridges, or other dangerous or violent subjects
  • Marked changes in personal hygiene, work performance, or social behavior
  • Isolation or withdrawal, alienating members of their support systems or family
  • Excessive use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Increased use of sick time

Consider other factors

  • Colleagues expressing fear, concern, or worry about a co-worker
  • Your ”gut sense,” even if vague, that something is seriously wrong or dangerous
  • Actual or threatened loss of a relationship or job, or death of a family member

How you can help: simple guidelines
A distressed or troubled person may not know how to ask for help. You can express your concerns in acaring, nonjudgmental way in a private place.

  • Remain respectful, calm, and patient
  • Find out if there are others with whom they have spoken about their problem. Do they have a support system?
  • Express concern: “I am concerned; worried about you. . . “
  • Don’t feel you need to provide a solution but do offer resources such as FSAO.
  • Do not make promises, especially about confidentiality.
  • Do not dismiss, minimize, or rationalize your observations and concerns, thinking someone else will deal with them.

How to make a referral

  • Suggest that the individual make an appointment and express confidence that he or she will get help.
  • If you are uncomfortable approaching a co-worker, you can call the Employee Assistance Program (Password for BMC Employees: LMEAP) at 866-695-6327 , or the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office (for BU employees) at 617-353-5381 for a consultation on how best to approach a referral and how to alert staff of your concerns.
  • You can help make an appointment or accompany your colleague. Write down details of the appointment, including time, location, and the clinician’s name.
  • If you think the situation is critical, call and say that your colleague needs urgent care.Remember, there is usually a pattern of escalating behaviors and distress that, in retrospect, was observed by others.

A co-worker is often the first to observe signs of distress or trouble.
Early recognition, intervention, and referral are critical to getting someone help and preventing violence. If you find yourself worried or alarmed about an individual who is distressed or troubled, you should speak with a behavioral health professional.
Taking action can save a job, education, career, or life. If an individual’s behavior appears to be an imminent threat to safety, call the BU Police Department 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year at 617-353-2121 for the Charles River Campus and 617-414-4444 for the Medical Center Campus.


BMC EAP (Password for BMC Employees: LMEAP)
Medical Center Public Safety: 617-414-4444
Boston Medical Center Emergency Departments:

  • Menino Pavilion: 617-414-4075
  • East Newton Pavilion: 617-638-6240

BMC Chaplain Services

Faculty and Staff Assistance Office
BU Police: 617-353-2121
BU Human Resources

Off Campus

Samaritans of Boston: 617-247-0220 or 508-875-4500
Samaritans for Teens: 800-252-8336
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center: 617-492-7273
Safelink Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline: 877-785-2020