How to Help a Friend
College is a time for growth and change, and sometimes that growth can involve struggle. Most students experience stress or overwhelm at some point in college, along with many other common concerns like break-ups, family conflicts, academic pressure, homesickness, roommate concerns, and financial stress. These are often times when students turn to friends for support. Friends offer a special kind of support you can't get from parents, teachers, or even siblings. Friends seem to know when you need to vent or when you need to share a frozen yogurt, and the time spent sharing like this can strengthen the bond between you.
Sometimes, though, even a friend doesn't know how to help. The problems your friend’s sharing or the things you’re observing may be concerning, and you may feel in over your head.
If you’re concerned about a friend’s recent behaviors, emotions, or statements, here’s how you can help:
Know when to seek professional help.
It’s normal to go through a funk or the blues, and everyone feels stressed sometimes. When these problems go on for more than about 2 weeks or interfere with your friend’s daily life, it can be a sign that something else is going on.
Look out for these signs as an indicator that your friend might need to professional help:
- A problem or concern that causes significant distress or interferes with daily functioning.
- Abrupt or radical changes in behavior, including exercise, class attendance, going out, or class performance.
- Isolation from others.
- Dramatic changes in appetite/eating or sleep, either increasing or decreasing.
- Noticeable changes in mood, such as depression, apathy, or irritability, or noticeable mood swings, from high to low or low to high.
- Sudden outbursts of anger or aggression.
- Unusual attention/memory difficulties.
- Alcohol/drug abuse.
- Marked changes in weight, hygiene, or general appearance.
- Unusual or inappropriate emotional responses, including crying or laughing.
- Bizarre, paranoid, or delusional statements or behavior
- Out-of-control risky or reckless behavior.
- Self-harm (like cutting or burning oneself).
- Suicidal statements.
***If you feel that your friend is a danger to themselves or others or that this is otherwise an emergency, please call 911. ***
Share your concerns in a caring way.
It’s easy to let your concerns go unvoiced. May students fear the awkward moment they need to bring up a concern, or they’re afraid to say the wrong thing. Although it can feel intrusive to address personal issues with a friend, more often than not, they’ll appreciate it in the long-run.
Tell your friend you’d like to speak to them about your concerns, and suggest they meet you for a meal or a favorite shared activity. Approach the conversation with interest and caring. Don’t try to be their counselor, but do let them know that you’re listening and are concerned.
If you’re not sure what to say, here are some pointers for having a conversation about personal issues:
- Stick to the facts. Try to keep the conversation focused on facts, observations, and behaviors, such as what your friend as said or done. You can begin the conversation with a simple statement like “Do you remember when…”
- Use “I statements.” Without criticism or judgment, express the way you feel from your point of view. Statements like “I’m worried about your weight loss” or “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been to class” can help open the conversation in a more approachable way.
- Listen. Once you’ve expressed your feelings, give your friend the space to talk. Offer encouragement, and really listen.
- Reflect & Clarify. Reflect back what you hear and check in with your friend about your understanding of the situation. If you can, offer them help in clarifying what the problem is. Remember, it’s not your role to diagnose or counsel but rather to be a supportive ear.
- Check in again. After a while, check back in with your friend about your concerns. If they came up with a plan to get help, ask them how it went. Let them know if you’ve noticed any improvements, and let them know that you’d still like to help in whatever way you’re able.
Most anyone would rather talk to a friend about personal issues than a counselor, but sometimes a counselor is exactly who they need to speak to. If they don’t know about CAPS, tell them about us and what we do. If you’ve been to CAPS yourself and you feel comfortable sharing, let them know. Many students who come to CAPS say it was helpful to have a friend tell them that they’d seen a counselor, too.
Offer to walk with your friend to CAPS triage. You can sit in the waiting room with them and do something together when you’re done. If CAPS is not an option for whatever reason, offer to help your friend find an off-campus resources instead. Many counselors can be found at goodtherapy.org or psychologytoday.com.
If you’re not sure, consult with a counselor.
While you can’t make an appoint for a friend, you can always consult confidentially with a CAPS counselor if you’re not sure how to help a friend. A counselor can help you clarify your concerns and give you information about resources that could help your friend. To consult with a CAPS counselor about your concerns, you can call CAPS (520-621-3334) or speak with a counselor through our Triage service.
Support your friend through treatment
If your friend is in mental health treatment, you can support them with encouragement to stick with the plan and checking in every now and then on how it’s going. You don’t need to be a counselor, just a friend.