How to help a friend

At times you may wonder how to help a friend who is in distress.  In most instances simply communicating your concern and then listening to your friend in a non-judgmental and supportive way is the best help you can provide. 

There are other instances where a friend’s problems are more serious and this approach may not be enough.  If any of the following apply, encourage your friend to get professional help. 

  • Your friend is always in distress of some kind
  • Your friend rarely seems to feel better for more than a little while
  • Your friend is isolating him/herself from family or close friends
  • Your friend stops taking care of themselves
  • Your friend uses an excessive amount of drugs or alcohol
  • Your friend seems to be severing close relationships with others
  • Your friend severely restricts calories, exercises excessively and/or binges/purges
  • Your friend feels desperate or hopeless that things will not change
  • Your friend talks about wanting to hurt themselves or hurt someone else
  • You are feeling overwhelmed by your friends’ problems

In these cases, it may be helpful to:

Approach your friend about your concern.  This could be as simple as saying that you’ve noticed that they are in a lot of distress and asking what you can do to help.  Usually it is best to avoid judgmental or provocative statements (e.g. you’ve been out of control lately; what’s wrong with you?) and instead focus on the facts (e.g., I’ve noticed that you aren’t coming to class much and that you seem really down all the time).

Ask if your friend has ever considered talking to a professional counselor, a trusted advisor or a family member.  You can give your friend information about CAPWS and, if you are comfortable, offer to accompany your friend to the center for support. 

Consider talking with a member of the counseling center staff for assistance. You are always welcome to come to CAPWS to ask for advice on how to approach the situation.  We will offer advice which may or may not include asking you to refer your friend to CAPWS.

Helping a suicidal friend:

People who are thinking about suicide may talk directly about their plans or talk more indirectly about feeling that life is unbearable and that there is no solution to their problems.  You should take such statements seriously and not assume that the person is only temporarily upset or that the situation will resolve itself. 

If you suspect that a friend is suicidal:

  • Ask directly about suicide.  Be as calm as possible. 
  • Ask, are you thinking about hurting yourself? 
  • Ask if your friend has a specific plan.

Remember that some suicidal people do not have an immediate plan, but still need help.

  • Do not try to handle the situation alone.  If you believe that your friend is going to harm themselves, do not leave them alone.  Contact someone who can help you and your friend in this situation.
    • Call Counseling Services at 516-876-3053 (during regular business hours)
    • Call University Police at 516-876-3333. They are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and will help connect you to the appropriate parties who will help your friend.  
    • It may also be helpful to contact your Resident Assistant or close friend/family member who can help.
  • You don’t have to be a detective.   It is not up to you to figure out whether your friend is serious about suicide.  Always take signs of suicide seriously and get help.
  • Be non-judgmental.  This is not the time to argue about morals, challenge the validity of the persons experience or try to make them feel guilty about their feelings.  Encourage your friend to consider other options and to make a specific plan for how to get help. 
  • Do not be sworn to secrecy.  Your friend may open up to you but then ask you not to tell anyone else.  This isn’t fair to you and it isn’t safe for your friend.  It is better to risk your friend’s anger than to take chances.  Don’t promise to keep secrets, but do promise to help the person in whatever way you can. 
  • Communicate that you care.  Reassure your friend that even though life feels overwhelming, what they are experiencing is temporary and there are ways to work through these feelings.  Let your friends know that you have hope for their future and that you will be there to help. 
  • Take good care of yourself, too.  Helping a friend in distress can be frightening, exhausting, overwhelming and frustrating.  Get support from someone close to you or from a professional counselor.

If you are uncomfortable talking directly with your friend or feel uncertain about what you should do, talk with someone you trust.  You can also contact Counseling Services staff at (516)876-3053 to discuss your concerns.