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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.

At times, however, a friend's problems are more serious and this approach may not be enough. If any of the following apply, encourage your friend 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 him/herself
  • Your friend is using an excessive amount of alcohol or other drugs
  • Your friend seems to be ruining close relationships with others
  • Your friend severely restricts calories, exercises excessively or binges/purges
  • Your friend feels desperate or hopeless that things will change
  • Your friend talks about wanting to hurt him/herself or hurt someone else
  • You are feeling overwhelmed by your friend's 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 s/he is 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 of the time).
  • Ask if your friend has ever considered talking to a professional counselor or to a trusted advisor or family member. You can give your friend information about the Student Counseling Service and, if you are comfortable doing so, offer to accompany your friend to an initial consultation there.
  • Consider talking with a member of the Student Risk Evaluation Committee. If your friend's problems seem severe and interfere with school or clinical performance or you have concerns that s/he may be at risk of hurting herself or someone else in the future, reach out for help! This committee can meet with the student, help determine a course of action, and coordinate with other campus offices to assist the student. You can reach Dr. Simmons, the Director of Student Health and Chair of this committee, at 464-4260.

In spite of your best efforts, sometimes friends just won't be receptive to your concerns or suggestions. In those cases it can be helpful to remind your friend that you are there if needed and then to respect your friend's wish not to get help. A major exception to this, however, is when a friend has talked about wanting to hurt or kill him/herself or someone else. In these cases it is imperative that you get your friend help.

Helping a Suicidal Friend

People who are thinking about hurting themselves may communicate this in some way to close friends or family. They may talk directly about their plans or talk indirectly about feeling that life is unbearable and that there is no solution to their difficulties. 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 suicide 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 him/herself, do not leave them alone. Contact someone who can help you and your friend in this situation. Options include:
    • Public Safety at 464-4000 (24 hours a day)
    • CONTACT External Icon 24-hour crisis hotline at 315 251-0600
    • You also can call 911 or take your friend to the nearest emergency room.
    • It also may be helpful to contact your Resident Assistant or close friends/family members who can help.
    • The Student Counseling Center at 464-3120 (during regular business hours)
  • Remember, 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 suicidally seriously and get help.
  • Be non-judgmental. This is not the time to argue about morals, challenge the validity of the person's 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, there are ways to work through these feelings. Let your friend know that you have hope for his/her future and that you will be there to help.
  • Take good care of yourself, too. Helping a friend in distress can be frightening, exhausting, 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 also can contact Student Counseling at 464-3120, to discuss your concerns. Please know, however, that if you provide the name of the student you wish to discuss, Student Counseling staff may intervene directly with that student.