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How to help a friend

Hands reaching outEveryone goes through different ups and downs in their life and different people handle their challenges in different ways. You, yourself may have even struggled at some point now or in the past. 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.

When trying to help a friend, it is important to remember the limitations of your own knowledge. While it is perfectly appropriate for you to want to help your friend and offer advice, you are not a counsellor and shouldn’t feel like you need to be.

Recognizing the signs of a friend who might be 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

Two people talking on a bench in front of a lakeIf you are comfortable doing so, speaking directly to your friend and expressing your concern can often help someone take the first steps to getting help. 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 judgement 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

Friends huggingYou 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 at Counselling Services offices in Needles Hall North on the second floor, Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. as well.

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.

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.