How to help a friend

Friends hugging on a bench

Sometimes you might notice a friend is struggling with their mental health and want to help, but it can be really hard to know how, or if you should approach them. You might be unsure of what to say or worried that they might get angry or stop talking to you. But in reality, reaching out and showing you care can really help a person who is experiencing a mental health concern.

How do you recognize if someone is struggling

There are many different signs of mental health concerns, including: a sudden disinterest in or absence from classes, patterns of perfectionism, deterioration in physical appearance, excessive fatigue, noticeable self-harm marks, unusual inability to make eye contact, statements indicating distress or intent to self-harm, difficulty controlling emotions, sudden social withdrawal, and expressions of hopelessness. For a more in-depth discussion of the signs, see the Recognize section of the More Feet on the Ground training.

Ways to respond

Keep the following things in mind if you choose to speak directly with someone you think is struggling:

  • Meet in a private place where you won’t be interrupted
  • Express your concern in a positive tone and point out specific behaviours that have caused you concern
  • Ask how things are going for them
  • Listen with empathy and without judgment and encourage them to elaborate
  • Remember, opening up can be hard and emotional for both of you
  • Avoid promising to keep their concerns a secret. If your friend expresses something that might mean there is a safety risk, you should always contact someone else who can help
  • Make sure you let your friend know about the different options to get help

For more information about how to respond to a friend in distress, see the Respond section of the More Feet on the Ground training.

How to refer a friend

You can offer to walk your friend to Counselling Services or provide them with our information. We’re located in Needles Hall North on the second floor and our phone number is 519-888-4567 ext. 32655. Our office hours are Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and your friend can meet with an Intake Specialist who can help them put together a wellness plan.

Health Services can help with primary mental health care. Our building is across the bridge from the Student Life Centre and you can reach us by phone at 519-888-4096. Our hours are Monday – Thursday 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

UW MATES peer support volunteers are available for drop-in or scheduled appointments at Counselling Services offices in Needles Hall North on the second floor, Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

If you think your friend might be a safety risk to themselves or others it is important not to leave them alone and to get them to help. If it is after Counselling Services office hours, you can call the UW Police at 519-888-4567 ext. 22222 and they will help refer your friend to the appropriate after-hours resources.

There are also 24/7 helplines your friend can call: Here 24/7 (1-844-437-3247) and Good2Talk (1-866-925-5454).

For more information about how to refer someone, see the Refer section of the More Feet on the Ground training.

Take care of yourself

The selfless act of listening, supporting, and comforting a friend can be overwhelming. It is important to remember the following things:

  • Take time for yourself. Remember to practice your own self-care rituals even when you are spending extra effort to care for another person. Make time for things you enjoy and things that help you take care of yourself to keep some balance in your own life.
  • Other people’s experiences can be triggering. Depending on what your friend tells you, you might have some of your own memories of previous experiences pulled to the surface. If you find yourself experiencing distress because of something you helped a friend through, consider speaking to a professional yourself.
  • Know your own limitations. Remember that you are not a counsellor and that you shouldn’t be expected to know everything about your friend’s mental health concern. Referring your friend to an appropriate resource is really important for both yourself and your friend.

Want to learn more?

Counselling Services offers mental health awareness and suicide intervention training throughout the year. For more information about the different types of training and course availability, visit our Training page.

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