Stanford's 'safety net' helps students in distress

The director of Vaden Health Center says faculty can play a critical role in supporting the mental health and well-being of students.

L.A. Cicero Ira M. Friedman speaking to the Faculty Senate

Ira M. Friedman addressing the Faculty Senate on Thursday about student mental health and well-being.

Ira M. Friedman, director of Vaden Health Center, on Thursday said Stanford has established an extensive "safety net" of mental health and well-being resources on campus to help students who may be experiencing psychological distress.

Speaking to the Faculty Senate, Friedman encouraged faculty members to contact someone in the safety net if they are concerned about a student. He said early recognition and intervention can help address mental health issues before they become more difficult to mitigate and treat.

"I'm going to start with a very provocative statement, which is that stress is up and students may not have the resilience to overcome that level of stress," he said. "I believe it's true among students, not necessarily every student, of course, but it may explain why you as faculty members on campus encounter students with signs of stress."

He told the senate to keep in mind that the late teenage and young adult years are a peak time for the first onset of mental health conditions.

Friedman said faculty can play a critical role in supporting the mental health and well-being of students by recognizing the signs of psychological distress in students, intervening by engaging the students in conversation and listening to them talk about their problems, and encouraging them to get help.

He urged faculty to encourage feedback from teaching assistants and course assistants if they sense that a student is in distress, and to pay attention to any of these warning signs:

  • Change in participation and/or performance
  • Decline in the quality of academic work
  • Frequent absences from a lab, office or class
  • Change in mood or appearance
  • Unusual or troubling behavior, including angry outbursts, inappropriate dark humor and vague threats to harm themselves or others
  • Failure to respond to repeated attempts to communicate
  • Concerns expressed by other students

He encouraged faculty members to trust their instincts.

"If you're concerned there is a problem, you're probably right," Friedman said.

Friedman said faculty members should seek help and advice whenever the demands of the situation exceed their comfort level.

The key thing for faculty to remember, he said, is that Stanford has many resources available to help students get the best possible referral.

When encouraging students to seek help, a faculty member could say, "I know that there are many caring and helpful staff who can listen and help you access the many resources that are available to help students who may be experiencing difficulties."

Friedman encouraged faculty to reach out to trained staff at Stanford who can assess the seriousness of the situation, develop options for a response and gather the resources needed to respond.

The people who compose the safety net can be found in a new online resource directory, Wellness Network at Stanford, at

The online directory is a comprehensive, searchable site that links students, faculty and staff, and family and friends to immediate crisis-intervention services and professional counseling, as well as academic support services, community centers and student groups. It features more than 150 resources and reflects the spectrum of mental health and well-being support available on campus. Select off-campus resources also are included.

Friedman said help is available 24 hours a day. He said the "go-to staff" include the residence deans, graduate life deans and staff in Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Vaden. They are backed up by residential staff, including residence fellows, peer health educators and community associates.

There are more than 14 offices in Stanford's safety net, including CAPS, Residential Education, the Graduate Life Office, Athletics and the Office for Religious Life.

The full minutes of the Oct. 9 meeting will be available on the Faculty Senate website next week. The minutes will include the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation. The next senate meeting will be held Oct. 23.