Helping A Colleague Who Is Troubled Or Distressed


When to be concerned:

We work and study in a challenging environment in which we are constantly striving for excellence and high performance, a situation that may 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, such stress may be too much to tolerate without losing control, and results can sometimes be tragic.

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 a usually an escalating pattern leading up to violent behavior that people see before the actual event. It therefore may be preventable.”

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 on campus. If you find yourself worried or alarmed about an individual who is distressed or troubled, you should speak with a behavioral health professional at the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office (FSAO). Taking action can save a job, an education, a career—or a life. If an individual’s behavior appears to be an imminent threat to safety, contact the Boston University Police Department immediately at 617-353-2121. The BUPD is available 365 days a year, 24/7

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 of 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 a support system 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 the 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 a caring, nonjudgmental way in a private place.

  • Remain respectful, calm, and patient
  • Find out if there are others with whom the distressed person has spoken about the problem.  Do they have a support system?
  • Express concern: “I am concerned; I am 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

You are an important key to safety at Boston University.

How to Make a Referral

  • Suggest that the individual make an appointment, expressing confidence that he or she will get help.
  • If you are uncomfortable approaching a co-worker, you can call the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office at 617-353-5381 for consultation on how best to approach a referral and to alert staff members 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.

Services Offered

The Faculty & Staff Assistance Office includes licensed clinicians with expertise in all areas affecting faculty & staff life.

The University also has an interdisciplinary Care Team that meets regularly to work on community safety issues involving faculty, staff, students and members of the public.

The Faculty & Staff Assistance Office offers the following to all faculty & staff members at no cost:

  • Confidential consultation
  • Crisis intervention
  • Brief treatment which may include individual or couple therapy

The staff at FSAO maintains an extensive referral network of community providers and resources for individuals or families that need specialized services or longer-term treatment.

When you call for an appointment, the administrative coordinator will ask if this is your first contact with FSAO. If your call is urgent you will be seen as quickly as possible, otherwise, you will be asked for convenient times. A counselor may also be consulted by telephone.

With the exception of life-and-death emergencies during which time the safety of any person may be at risk, all calls and visits are strictly confidential. 


In case of an emergency, call The BU Police Department 24/7 at 617-353-2121 (Charles River Campus) and 617-414-4444 (Medical Campus).

Do not leave urgent messages on the FSAO answering machine.
The FSAO is covered from 8am–4:30pm Monday through Friday.
Non-urgent calls will be answered the following morning.

Boston University Resources

  • Faculty & Staff Assistance Office: 617-353-5381
  • Boston University Police: 617-353-2121
  • Medical Center Public Safety: 617-414-4444
  • Boston Medical Center Emergency Departments
    • Menino Pavilion: 617-414-4075
    • East Newton Pavilion: 617-638-6240
    • University Chaplains: 617-353-3560

Community Resources

  • Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Emergency Department: 617-754-2400
  • Brigham and Women’s Hospital Emergency Department: 617-732-5636
  • Massachusetts General Hospital Emergency Department: 617-724-4100
  • St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Emergency Department: 617-789-2666
  • Samaritans of Boston: 617-247-0220, 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