How to Help a Friend
We support our friends in a lot of ways. If you have a friend who is having a difficult time emotionally, not coping well with something, or using drugs or alcohol to escape, there are ways to help. It can be tricky to address these sorts of problems with a friend, but unaddressed emotional issues can lead to addiction, dangerous behaviors, or thoughts of suicide. Be the difference for a friend by learning the signs of a problem, and how to help.
Signs of Problem
According to mtvU, when asked whom they would turn to if they were in emotional distress, most students list their friends as a top source of support!
College can be a stressful time when it is common to be overwhelmed, anxious and overexerted – so it can be tough to tell if a friend is dealing with everyday challenges or struggling with them. A friend might need help to develop better coping and stress management skills, or they could be dealing with an illness like depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety disorder that generally require attention and treatment.
Here are some common signs that a friend needs help dealing with emotional issues or a mental health problem:
- Depression or apathy that interferes with obligations or participating in social activities
- Lack of coping skills around day-to-day problems or extreme reactions to certain situations
- Extreme highs, referred to as mania, that may include rushed thoughts, bursts of energy, sleeplessness and compulsive behavior (like excessive spending or promiscuous sexual behavior)
- Severe anxiety or stress
- Constant feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
How to Respond
How you respond to a friend or classmate is often dependent on your relationship with that person. If you have a long history and friendship, you’ll probably feel comfortable talking with your friend about how he or she is feeling. For a more recent acquaintance, like a roommate or classmate, you might want to let someone else know about the problem.
Remember, you aren't a therapist and it isn't your responsibility to solve their problems. Your role is to be supportive and encourage your friend to reach out to family, the counseling center or other another medical professional as a first step — even if you don't fully understand the problem or its severity.
Despite your good intentions, your friend might be reluctant to accept the possibility that he or she could have a problem that needs attention. They might say that the best way to help is to “back off” or ignore the problem, but trust your instincts. In this situation, it is important that you do NOT:
- Enable your friend by covering up for missed obligations
- Continue to participate with your friend in behaviors (like drinking) that are agitating their mental health
- Back down on the importance of seeking help – remember, many emotional disorders require professional support and aren't something people can fix on their own
- Feel like you are going behind your friend's back if you think it's necessary to tell someone else about the problem without your friend's consent
What to Say
When we see someone who is sad, angry or anxious, it is our instinct to ask “what's wrong?” Someone dealing with a mental health problem may have thoughts or feelings not based on something that just happened. You may not be able to understand how your friend is feeling and it may seem uncomfortable or awkward to discuss personal and emotional issues, but you can listen and let them know they aren't alone.
If you are concerned that a friend is thinking about harming themselves or someone else, it is important that you don't try and deal with that situation alone. Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for guidance or contact your campus counseling center. If there is an immediate threat of harm, call 9-1-1 or your campus emergency number.
When approaching a friend who is has a problem or is dealing with emotional distress, it’s important to be patient and supportive. Here are some key points to make when talking with a friend in need:
- We all go through tough times. Sometimes people see asking for help as a sign of weakness so you can comfort your friend by giving them an example of a time you or someone you know struggled and needed support.
- You can feel better. Your friend may feel hopeless or like no one can understand or help them, so it's important to make them see that reaching out for support is the first step to feeling better. Mental health problems are treatable and manageable.
- It's okay to ask for help. Our backgrounds, cultures and experiences can have a huge impact on how we view help-seeking. Some people may come from families or groups where asking for help or seeing a mental health professional is shunned or thought of as weak. Thinking about why a friend might be reluctant get help can be important in deciding how to suggest they reach for support.
Sources used in this article:mtvU College Mental Health Study