Talking to someone about how they are feeling can make a big difference and help them feel supported. Most people experiencing mental health difficulties will speak to a trusted friend or family member before seeking help from a health professional. Starting a conversation can therefore help to ease their difficulty and could assist them in accessing additional support. The Time to Change Look After Your Mate campaign could be helpful if you are supporting a friend. Friends can need each other during both good and bad times and although supporting someone can be rewarding, it is important to look after yourself as well. See the ‘Self-Care’ section on this page for more guidance on this.
Identifying if someone is struggling
The signs that someone is struggling differ from person to person and some are more noticeable than others. Common signs include:
- Withdrawing from social activities, especially if they are usually sociable.
- Experiencing anxiety and difficult emotions and perhaps using difficult coping mechanisms, e.g. alcohol, or harming themselves or others.
Approaching someone who is struggling
Signs that someone is struggling with their mental health can differ depending on the person, so it is important to check these out wth your friend rather than just assuming that they are having issues. You can approach them in a variety of ways, such as:
- ‘Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve not been out much lately. Is everything OK?’
- ‘Feels like you’ve been drinking more than normal these last few weeks. You know you can always talk to me if anything’s bothering you, don’t you?’
- ‘Hope everything’s OK. I’m here to listen to you if you need to get anything off your chest?’
- I don’t want to intrude, but I’ve noticed you aren’t seeming your happy self lately. Anything I can help with?’
Sometimes just starting a conversation can make all the difference and the person might use this opportunity to chat about something that is on their mind. Approaching the situation gently and openly can be the start of further discussion, or it can just let them know you are there for them. More advice on the first steps to approaching someone can be found here.
What to do next
If your friend does want to speak about something that is on their mind, it is important to listen and hear what they are saying. Although you might want to fix their problems or offer them a solution, sometimes it is better to just offer a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. Everyone’s journey is unique and personal to them, so by offering an ‘I am here’ attitude as opposed to a ‘you need to…’ approach, you will allow them to express themselves rather than comparing their experiences to your suggestions.
You are bound to have questions, but this experience might be as baffling for them as it is for you, so speak gently as you try to understand, but do not be intrusive. It is brave for them to share their difficulties so let them take the lead as they might not be ready or feel able to share all they need to share yet.
What emotional support can I offer?
If someone is struggling, you might feel like you do not know what to do or what to say, yet by showing that you care you can offer them invaluable support.
- Listen. Offering space to talk about what they are experiencing will help them feel understood.
- Stay calm. It might be distressing for you to hear that they are having difficulties, but if you stay calm it might help them to feel calmer. It will also show them that they can talk openly without fear of upsetting you.
- Stay social. Keeping things as ‘normal’ as possible is an important part of emotional support. Chat about other parts of your life and stay involved in social events.
- Be patient. Although offering patience and time might be hard throughout this difficult experience, it will really benefit your friend and yourself. It might be hard for them to share their story, accept support, or to appreciate your help, therefore taking time and knowing that not everything will be solved overnight can help take the pressure off both of you.
What practical support can I offer?
There is a variety of practical support you can offer, however, make sure you speak to them and see what support they feel they need and what you are actually able to offer.
- Help with practical tasks. This might involve offering to accompany them to appointments or assisting with household tasks. Speak to your friend about what support they need and you might be able to help practically.
- Gather information. Collecting resources and finding support information online will allow your friend to look through information they could find helpful, in their own time.
- Spend time. Doing things you both enjoy will help keep your friendship strong. Spending time as you would have prior to this difficulty, or even trying new things, can be extremely beneficial.
Dos and don’ts
DO offer patience. They might want to spend more time alone or be experiencing difficult moods.
DO start dialogues, DON’T start debates. It is important to hear what they tell you and, even though you might not agree, communication is key to building trust and understanding.
DO ask what helps, DON’T just guess. They might find it difficult to express their needs but allow them their own empowerment and self-awareness to see what works for them. For example, you might want to be with your friend so they don’t feel alone, but they might need some personal space and would prefer to stay in contact through technology. Make sure that your attempts to meet their needs are realistic and be honest with yourself about what you can offer them. See the ‘Self-Care’ section of this page for more guidance.
What if someone doesn’t want help?
There will be times when a person does not want help or is not aware that they are struggling. In these instances there is very little that you can do. It is preferable for someone to get help before they are in crisis but sometimes people wait until this point before reaching out. Please see our ‘Emergency’ section on this page for what to do in this situation.
- Be patient. You might not know the full story and your friend might have personal reasons as to why they are finding it difficult to talk.
- Offer reassurance. Let them know that you care for them and that you are willing to listen if they want to talk about what is bothering them.
Give them options. Collect useful information for your friend which they can look at in their own time when they feel ready. They might prefer to talk to a professional about their issues and this is not something you should take personally as it it might just be that this is easier for them. By offering them resources, some of which can be found on these webpages, you are showing your friend that you have their best interests at heart.
- Take care of yourself. It is easy to put pressure on yourself to help someone, especially if they are not open to your support. Remember that there are services that can help in this situation. Start by being a good friend to yourself and you will be in a better position to help others.
- Force someone to talk to you. Putting pressure on somebody to talk about their experience can make them withdraw and could potentially affect your friendship.
- Force someone to get help. If they are over eighteen and not in immediate danger to themselves or others then, as adults, they are ultimately responsible for seeking their own help if they feel unwell.
- See a professional on their behalf. Although general information regarding difficulties might be shared, any specific advice or details about someone would not be shared as this is confidential.
If someone needs help now and you are on campus, please call Campus Support on 01695 584227. If you live off campus and need advice then phone the police on 101.
For support within the University, contact the Wellbeing Team.
You must ensure that you have all the support you need before you can support a friend. It is important to reach out to your own support network and services to make sure that you have the emotional resources necessary to care for a friend. Knowing the limitations of what you feel comfortable doing and what you are able to offer allows you to seek out the necessary support to look after your own mental and emotional wellbeing.
How can I look after myself?
Sometimes supporting someone can take its toll, but by making sure you take care of your own wellbeing, you ensure that you have the time, energy and stability to help someone else.
- Be realistic. This will help you not to take on too much. Remember that while your support is important, you are their friend and not a healthcare professional.
- Take time for yourself. If you feel overwhelmed or in need of some space, taking time out for yourself can help you feel refreshed and in a better place to offer support.
- Mind have a helpful website which gives information for different difficulties and advice on how to support a friend who is experiencing them.
- The Time to Change blog contains useful tips on helping a friend in need.
- Rethink Mental Illness offers a handy support page for identifying and helping a friend who may have mental health difficulties.