How to help a friend

Being close friends with someone means we are often the first ones to notice a change in their behavior or appearance. 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. Although you may be close to this person, it is important to remember that you are not a professional who can provide counselling but rather a support for a friend who might need help getting referred to one.

Recognizing the signs of a friend who might be struggling

Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate signs between someone who is going through a tough time or signs of mental health concerns. There are many different signs of mental health concerns, including: a sudden disinterest in or absence from classes, sudden drastic change in appearance, use of alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism, 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 More Feet on the Ground training.

friend helping someone over a hill

Ways to respond

If you feel comfortable doing so, reach out to your friend directly to let them know that they are not alone. If you are not comfortable approaching them, contact Counselling Services and ask for advice on how to deal with the situation. 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
  • It is okay to ask someone about suicide, talking about difficult topics does not make someone more likely to harm themselves
  • 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 More Feet on the Ground training.

Knowing what to Say

One of the barriers to approaching a mental health discussion with a friend is knowing what to say. Here are the 5 golden rules to help someone struggling with their mental health.

  1. Say What you See

  • If you are noticing a difference in the way your friend is acting or if you have a gut feeling, simply tell them what you’ve noticed and ask if they are okay
  1. Show you Care

  • Being there for your friend can create a safe environment where they can open up and talk about what they are going through
  1. Hear Them Out

  • This step is crucial as this might be the first time your friend has spoken to anyone about their struggles
  • Make sure that you are listening and not showing judgment about their situation
  • When someone shares something difficult with you, you will want to use empathy instead of sympathy in your responses. This means that you put yourself in their situation and simply acknowledge that they are going through something difficult and that you care rather than trying to find a silver lining
  • If you are unclear on the difference between sympathy and empathy, this video by Brene Brown goes through examples for both:

  1. Know your Role

  • Often actions speak louder than words as discussions can only do so much
  • A shared meal, hug or offer to drive them somewhere shows that you are there to help
  1. Connect them to Help

  • Although you can’t and should not force your friend to go anywhere they don’t want to, you can help them learn what resources are available and where they are.

Adapted from:

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.

UW MATES peer support volunteers are available for drop-in or scheduled appointments in a variety of locations.

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 More Feet on the Ground training.

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 trainings and course availability, visit our Training page.

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