Students often want to know how to help a friend who is in a bad relationship, has disordered eating, feels depressed, anxious, or is otherwise seriously overwhelmed and stressed. Here are some general guidelines with tips about what to do—and not do—if you have a friend you’re worried about.
Guiding Principles for Helping a Friend
Check in with yourself first
There are so many relevant sayings about self-care here; you can’t pour from an empty vessel, put your oxygen mask on first, etc. The bottom line: if you feel a friend needs support, check in with yourself to see what you are capable of doing. Your only responsibility is to navigate these conversations with compassion for both yourself and your friend. If supporting someone else is leading you to neglect your own responsibilities in favor of the other person’s, you’re disrespecting your friend’s autonomy (see below) and you’re abandoning your own obligations, it may be time to draw a boundary. You are absolutely allowed to tell your friend, “I can’t help you with this anymore.” Protecting your own energy is a legitimate, healthy and positive choice.
The most respectful, responsible thing you can do is to create space for your friend to make their own decisions. Wanting to jump in, make decisions and be directive is a common instinct in folks who want to help their friends. However, this often takes away the autonomy of the person you’re trying to help. Your role is to be their friend, not a clinician.
Listen for understanding, not persuasion
No matter how much sense you make, how sure you are about what a friend should do, and how clearly and articulately you express your opinion—attempting to persuade a friend to do things your way disrespects their autonomy. When you’re sitting with someone, try to focus on really hearing what they’re saying rather than formulating a response. Reflect back to them what they say and make sure you really understand what they’re experiencing. A strategy for doing this is to avoid the word “but.” Not "You want to feel better but you don’t want to take medication,” which closes a door; instead, try “You want to feel better and you don't want to take medication,” which opens the door to what they might want to do.
Change takes time
A major thing to keep in mind when trying to help a friend, is that change is incremental. For example, just because you have one conversation with someone about their drinking problem, doesn’t mean that they’re going to stop drinking altogether or seek help then and there. Respect your friend enough to allow them to change at their own pace and in their own way. If you feel their process is negatively impacting you, it may be time to think about your boundaries in the relationship or seek support for yourself.
Yes, tell someone
A class dean, an area coordinator, your HR or HP, the associate director for wellness, a nurse—there are lots of people on campus you can go to if you’re worried about a friend, especially if the situation involves any physical risk (abuse, suicide, etc). The person you tell might not—indeed, probably won’t—be able to do something immediately to change the situation, but being aware of such circumstances can help others support your friend. We can show you available resources and provide steps and strategies you can take if the situation gets more serious.
What You Can Do
- Prioritize your self-care and well-being.
- Be the kind of friend that you have the capacity to be; emphasis on being a friend, not a counselor or doctor.
- Be a role model for positive choices—in your relationships, eating and body image, and in your stress management.
- Avoid “fat” talking, criticism of other people’s bodies (or your own), or conversations about calories.
- Listen, listen, listen, without trying to persuade.
Reaching Out for Additional Support
Content note: This section includes a brief discussion of suicidality
Sometimes, supporting a friend can start to cross a line—at a certain point, you may need to get professional help involved.
Some signs that it might be time to bring in additional support include:
- A friend has expressed that they have a plan to hurt themself or someone else.
- You feel like you are the only one who can help someone.
- The relationship or support you are giving to another person is negatively impacting your life, including your ability to take care of yourself, your other relationships and your work/academic life.
- If you feel like someone is issuing ultimatums about the way you spend time with them.
- You find yourself feeling resentful or angry at this friend.