How to Help a Friend

One of the most important ways to be a good friend is to help your friends when you notice something is wrong. This includes helping them get the support they need and deserve if they are experiencing a mental health condition. This might seem like a big task, but it doesn’t have to be.

How Will I Know if Something’s Wrong?

Sometimes things don’t go our way or bad and unexpected things happen. It’s normal to get upset or sad during upsetting times, but if you feel that your friend isn’t responding normally it might mean that there’s something more serious going on. Here are some signs to look from your friend.

  • Withdrawing from social activities or appearing down for more than 2 weeks. This could mean crying regularly, feeling tired all the time or not wanting to hang out anymore. 
  • Self-harming actions such as cutting or burning. Some people may begin to wear long sleeves or pants to cover up signs that they are doing this.
  • Threatening to kill his- or herself or making plans to do so. Although you may not know whether your friend is serious or not, it’s better to be safe and take things seriously.
  • Extreme out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors. Behaviors that can endanger his- or her own life as well as others, such as speeding excessively and not obeying traffic laws, might be a sign that something is wrong.
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, including intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends.
  • Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight. Pay attention if your friend isn’t eating much at lunch or going to the bathroom right after meals.
  • Severe mood swings. Life is stressful, but if there seem to be outbursts that go beyond how other people would often act, it might mean something more serious.
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol. Coming to class hung over, showing up to sporting events intoxicated or wanting to bring drugs or alcohol into daily activities is not normal.
  • Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits. Your friend might be sleeping much more or much less or get agitated more frequently.
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still.

What Can I Do?

Share Your Concerns

Share your observations with your friend. Focus on being nonjudgmental, compassionate and understanding. Use these “I” (instead of “you”) comments to get the conversation started.

  • I’ve noticed you’re [sleeping more, eating less, etc.]. Is everything okay?
  • I've noticed that you haven't been acting like yourself lately. Is something going on?
  • It makes me afraid to hear you talking like this. Let’s talk to someone about it.

Reach Out to Someone You Trust

If a friend is in need, you don’t need to go at it alone. Involve others who can provide added support. Try to find someone who might be understanding of your friend’s situation or be able to help. Your friend may feel cornered if you start involving others, so make sure to talk to your friend first. However, if it’s an emergency, you should call 911 and get an authority figure. Here are some people you may consider reaching out to:

  • Friends and family
  • School teachers or counselors
  • Faith-based leaders
  • Coaches

Offer Support

Keep in mind that your friend might not be ready to talk about what they’re going through or simply may not want your help right now. You cannot force someone to get help, so just do your best to be there with your friend through their journey and be ready if and when they do finally reach out. It may be helpful to offer specific things that might help, such as:

  • How can I best support you right now? Is there something I can do or can we involve others who can help?
  • Can I help you find mental health services and supports? Can I help you make an appointment?
  • Can I help you with the stuff you need to get done until you’re feeling better?
  • Would you like me to go with you to a support group or a meeting? Do you need a ride to any of your appointments?

You can play an important role in helping a friend build a positive, social support network. Here are ways to do that:

  • Check-in regularly. Call or text your friend once or twice a week. Check in with them after their therapy appointments to see how things went. Let them know that you are there.
  • Include your friend in your plans. Even if your friend doesn’t always come, they will probably appreciate being included.
  • Learn more about mental health conditions. Find out more about what your friend is going through so you are better able to help in future situations.
  • Avoid using judgmental or dismissive language, such as “you’ll get over it,” “toughen up,” “snap out of it.” Your friend needs to hear that they are not alone and that they can get through this. Reassure them that everything will be okay and that you are there for them.

Being a friend means being there in easy times and more difficult times. If your friend is experiencing a mental health condition, this is a time when he or she needs you the most. And sometimes just talking about it might help your friend feel less alone and more understood. You can be the difference in helping a friend who needs support but is too afraid to seek help. Just a simple conversation can go a long way in helping your friend. You can make a huge difference in someone’s life.