Be there for them
Friends and family are often the first to notice when someone we care about is struggling. When we’re worried that a loved one is having a hard time, it’s important to trust our instincts and reach out. Below are tips and resources to help start the conversation, offer support and also look after ourselves in the process.
Signs to look out for
There are warning signs that someone might be having a hard time and need support. These signs can also be associated with hopelessness and thoughts of suicide, so it’s crucial that we trust our instincts and act if we recognize them in someone we care about.
They seem distant
If a friend is withdrawing from activities they usually enjoy, missing class, calling in sick to work, not returning calls or avoiding social gatherings, it’s a good time to check in.
Changes in habits
Not getting enough sleep or staying in bed more than usual can be warning signs, and a lack of sleep can also make emotional struggles worse. Likewise, eating more or less than normal can indicate that someone is having a hard time and may need support.
They’re not themselves
Extreme changes in mood or behavior can be a sign that a friend is dealing with a mental health challenge. Excessive worry, fear or paranoia, increased agitation, irritation and anger are warning signs that we shouldn’t ignore.
They’re negative or act hopeless
Even when a friend is hesitant to share what’s going on inside, they may express increased negativity in casual conversation or comments online. Don’t ignore these potential cues that they’re going through a tough time.
They’re being more risky
When a friend is using drugs or alcohol to cope, harming themselves or disregarding their personal safety and well-being, it’s time to take action. This behavior could actually be a warning sign of concerning emotional struggles.
What you can do
Calling out a friend’s behavior or focusing on concerning warning signs can make them defensive and push away. Instead of “You never show up to class or game night anymore, what’s up with that?” try “I feel like we haven’t hung out one-on-one in forever, are you up for dinner or coffee to catch up?” It can also help to speak with them at a relaxed time and place that puts you both at ease. Since some people who are struggling use alcohol to ineffectively cope, meeting up for coffee or a walk may be a better choice than grabbing drinks.
If they’re not receptive to meeting up or sharing their thoughts, consider an approach like, “Things just feel really overwhelming lately, and I could use one of our coffee shop talks. Can you hang out this week?” Being open and honest can lower their defenses and encourage them to be the same way.
Remember, you’re not a therapist, and it isn’t your job to solve the emotional challenges a friend may be facing. Your role is to listen, respond without judgment, offer support and encourage them to get help if needed. And if they’re talking about harming themselves or they’re engaging in risky behaviors, reach out or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free conversation with a trained counselor 24/7 who can help you navigate the situation.
For many people, getting help is no big deal, but some friends may feel embarrassed about reaching out for help, or they may come from communities where it’s looked down upon or seen as a sign of weakness. And journeying into the world of mental health professionals for the first time can feel overwhelming to anybody. So offer to navigate the process with them: researching options online, finding providers that are affordable or take their insurance, or even going with them to their first appointment and waiting to meet them after for lunch or a walk.
No matter how careful and understanding your approach, sometimes friends just aren’t ready to have the conversation or accept support. Remember that mental health struggles can impact the way a person perceives situations, reacts to stressor views themselves. Don’t give up after one unsuccessful attempt and don’t express anger or frustration if they aren’t responding in the way you’d hoped. But if your concerns continue or escalate, or you’re worried that friend might harm themselves, reach out to other friends, family members, faculty or trusted coworkers for help.
The saying “you can’t take care of other people if you aren’t taking care of yourself” is especially true here. Taking on the burden of a friend in emotional distress can be overwhelming and draining, so remember to recognize your limits, set boundaries and reach out for help if you need it.
What to say
When approaching a friend who might be struggling emotionally, it’s important to be patient, open-minded and supportive. You may not understand, but you can listen and be there for them. If a friend is experiencing suicidal ideation, find specific tips here.
Your friend may see asking for help as a sign of weakness. It can help to remind them that we all go through tough times, by sharing something you’re struggling with now or talking about a time when you needed support and how that helped you.
Help your friend see that reaching out for support is the first step to feeling better. When we’re struggling, it’s common to feel like no one can really help us. The good news is, most mental health challenges can be overcome, managed, or treated.
People who are struggling might not proactively ask for support. Some good approaches to being what they need are “You’ve been there for me so many times, how can I be there for you now?” or “I’m always just a phone call away”.