If you have a friend who is having a hard time at work, school or home, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do. Supporting a friend in trouble can be the difference between them moving through a difficult life challenge or sinking into a state of hopelessness, social withdrawal and despair.
Letting a friend know that you’re there – and you care – is the greatest act of friendship you can give. Here are some practical, genuinely helpful things you can do to support a friend through the tough times:
1. Reach out
Sometimes when a friend is struggling to cope they may isolate themselves. If you’ve noticed your friend has become withdrawn and stopped contacting you or cancelled planned catch-ups, it’s crucial to let them know they’re not alone.
Pick up the phone, send them a message on social media, or pop around to their place and let them know you’ve available to chat, and you’re concerned about them. They may not respond at first, so it’s important to keep trying. Even if it takes a few attempts, most people appreciate knowing that a friend cares enough to reach out.
2. Find a good time to talk
Choose a time when you’re both feeling reasonably relaxed and don’t have to rush off to other commitments – clear your schedule if needs be. Avoid trying to talk to them about your concerns during an argument or if they appear agitated.
It’s important to allow time to bring up your concerns, and leave enough time to discuss anything important that comes up in conversation.
3. Be a good listener
It might be tempting to offer your friend advice about how to deal with what they’re experiencing, but the most helpful thing you can do if they choose to open up to you is simply listen.
Let your friend guide the conversation – you can ask questions to get a better sense of what they’re feeling, but advice and well-meaning observations are often received as judgement or criticism. Focus on their strengths and coping abilities, and let them know you’re available to chat whenever they need you.
4. Encourage your friend to seek help
Recommending they make an appointment with their local GP is a great first step. You can also offer to call to arrange the appointment and accompany them if they’re feeling worried or need extra support.
5. Know when to back down
Sometimes talking to you may be all your friend is ready for: it’s important to know when to step back and give them some space and time to think about everything.
Pressuring your friend to seek professional support may not be helpful and could put them off seeking help. Be consistently supportive instead, and reassure them you’ll be there for them whatever they decide to do.
6. Educate yourself
If you suspect your friend may be depressed, anxious, stressed, physically unwell, in a relationship breakdown, drinking or substance abuse, gambling, or experiencing any kind of mental health issue, getting informed about treatment and support options can help you to better understand what they are going through, and shine a light on the specialist help that’s available.
The most helpful way you can support a friend in trouble is to offer unconditional support and understanding. Sometimes a sympathetic ear may be all the encouragement they need to seek help.
Supporting a friend in trouble research resources
Baker, T., & Warren, A. (2015). Active listening can make other people better communicators too. In Conversations at Work (pp. 160-175). Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Barney, L. J., Griffiths, K. M., Jorm, A. F., & Christensen, H. (2006). Stigma about depression and its impact on help-seeking intentions. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40(1), 51-54.
Hing, N., Nuske, E., Gainsbury, S. M., Russell, A. M., & Breen, H. (2016). How does the stigma of problem gambling influence help-seeking, treatment and recovery? a view from the counselling sector. International Gambling Studies, 16(2), 263-280.
Jones, S. M., Bodie, G. D., & Hughes, S. D. (2016). The Impact of mindfulness on empathy, active listening, and perceived provisions of emotional support. Communication Research, 0093650215626983.