How to Help A Friend

Another busy week! I am trying to juggle work, and life, and studying for the GRE and posting to my blog at least 2 times per week but I’m starting to fall behind. I will try to be more on the ball in February, I promise!

This post was inspired by the Bell Let’s Talk campaign that runs every January, and just passed last Wednesday, the 25th. I have participated in a few workshops and read a lot about how to help a friend in need and I feel that this information should be shared more because it’s important and should be general knowledge but mental health is so stigmatized and kept quiet that we don’t really know how to address it when it comes up. In this post I’m going to tell you step-by-step how to approach your friends, family, coworkers or colleagues when you are concerned about them and how to listen to them and get them the help they need.

The first step to helping your friend is to acknowledge that you have noticed that something is off about them. By this, I don’t mean to go up to them and say “hey, you’ve been quite lazy these days, what’s wrong with you?”. Even if they have been “quite lazy” and it’s definitely out of character, this is more of an attack than anything else. Simply asking “is everything okay?” will give them the opportunity to open up to you or shrug it off if they aren’t ready. Express your concerns in a way that doesn’t attack them. For example, “I noticed you haven’t been laughing as much as usual,” or “I noticed you’ve been late for class a lot these days, is everything okay?”. Never make them feel like what you have noticed is a bad thing. Simply state your concern and ask if they are okay. Saying things like “you’ve been really weird lately” or “you’re not as much fun as you used to be” can cause your friend to shut down and feel judged by you – you can’t help them if they don’t open up.

Inquire and Listen
Once they start talking to you LISTEN to them. They may have been dying inside to have someone listen to them and now you are that someone. Keep the conversation flowing by asking open-ended questions such as “how long have you felt this way?,” or “what would be helpful for you right now?”. Use active listening by asking them open-ended questions and allowing them to do about 80% of the talking. Try to avoid saying things like “okay,” or “yep” to acknowledge that you’re still listening, but rather, nod your head instead or use sounds like “mhm”. Give them your undivided attention – don’t check your cellphone or your watch or doodle in your notebook. They are your main priority and they need to feel it. If you’re not quite sure what they are trying to tell you, paraphrase it and ask for clarification and confirm that you have understood the issue. If they are experiencing a lot of anxiety in this moment, use some calming strategies and grounding techniques to help them relax. Don’t ever give advise! Unless you are qualified to do so, you are not qualified to do so! Even if you are completely against what they are telling you, you are in no position to tell them what to do or how to live their life because today, they have the floor, today is about them, not you! If they wanted your advise or your opinion, they would ask for it, but instead they are simply using you to vent and you have to let them do that because it’s the first step. Don’t tell them how to feel. I know there are good intentions behind saying “don’t worry so much!” or “a lot of people have it worse than you,” but these comments will only make them feel like you see their issues as insignificant. Even if their issues are insignificant to you, you need to understand that they are HUGE to them. There is no off button to anxiety or depression so you can’t tell someone to stop worrying about something. The problems they are experiencing are very real and your job is to give them someone to talk to.

You may find, in some extremely rare occasions, that the person you are helping is not even close to being okay. If they say they have thought about taking their life (or someone else), the conversation has left the realm of your capability. If they are actually going to hurt themselves or someone else you need to call 911 because you can’t help them anymore. You’re not a hero – remember that!

Encourage and Follow-Up
Encourage them to continue to seek support from you or from a professional. Make sure they know that your door is always open. You can say things like “it might be good for you to talk to someone who really knows how to help,” or “I’d be happy to check in with you in a few days, can I text you?”. Help point them to the resources that may be best suited for them such as counselling or yoga or group therapy and support them in going. If walking them to their appointments will help them go, then walk them there and be waiting outside when they are finished. Check in with a mental health advisor on campus if you’re a student or at a local mental health clinic to ensure that you have done all you could and to ask if there are better resources out there for them.

Take Care of Yourself
Taking care of other people can be mentally exhausting or difficult to handle. You may find yourself experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression after helping someone else through their struggles. This is normal! Just remember to get yourself the help you need, too! Like I said, you’re not a hero. You’re a human. Seek counselling if you need to talk to a professional about the person you were helping. Use grounding techniques on yourself, join a yoga class, keep a journal, go for a run. Take care of yourself because you are important!