Supporting a friend

Gareth Hughes

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

Supporting a friend who is experiencing difficulties in their life or with their mental health can feel daunting and providing this support isn’t always easy. It can be hard to know what to say and when to say it but keeping a few key principles in mind can help you and your friend.

When people are experiencing difficulties in their life or with their mental health, support from those around them can play a significant role in helping them to recover. However, your wellbeing also matters and it is important that you remember your role is to be a friend, not a mental health expert, counsellor or carer. The following tips may help you and your friend.

You do not have to provide solutions

It is natural to want to help your friend solve their problems, so they can feel better and enjoy life more. Solving problems is something that our brains naturally want to do. But finding solutions isn’t your responsibility and may not actually be what your friend needs from you. Quite often, what we need when we feel upset is someone who will listen to us, accept our story and show that they care. This alone can be a powerful form of support.

Ask your friend what you can do to help - you don't have to guess

Feeling that you should know what to do for your friend can feel stressful, but no response is ever right for everyone. Simply asking your friend what you can do to help can be useful in a number of ways;

  • If they can tell you and you can do as they ask, then they get what they need and you know you are being helpful

  • By asking your friend, you demonstrate that you care about them and that they aren’t alone

  • By allowing them to indicate what they need, you help them feel more in control of their situation

Living with mental ill health can be tough. Sometimes the overwhelming challenges of living with this kind of difficulty can make keeping up with the hectic pace of everyday life virtually impossible. If you have a few hours to spare, ask if you can be of practical help. Do they need a lift to therapy? Do they need any help organising paperwork? Doing the dishes? Making dinner? It’s always better to ask whether someone would appreciate this kind of assistance, rather than charging in head-first, leaving them feeling useless.

Its ok to ask for advice from others

Understandably, you may want to talk to other people and get some support for yourself. Check with your friend if they mind you talking to someone else to get support for yourself, if you friend does mind this, consider getting support and anonymising how you talk about your friend. You could get this advice from your university support services, from other university staff, from someone separated from the situation or from a charity, such as The Samaritans. If you are concerned about your friend’s safety you should seek advice from trusted professionals and if they advise it, you may need to share their details to help keep them safe.

It’s ok to put your own boundaries in place

When people are in distress, they can sometimes seek more support than you can give. It’s ok to acknowledge this and to communicate it to your friend. Your wellbeing matters and you won’t be able to help if you become overwhelmed. You still need to sleep, study, work and have time to rest and destress. Talk to them about how you can help and when you need time for yourself.

If something comes up that you aren’t comfortable talking about, you might suggest that they talk about this specific issue with someone else, such as a counsellor. If you ask something that your friend isn’t comfortable answering, try not to pressure them to talk about it. By setting these limits with your friends, you can help them set limits for themselves too.

Sometimes talking about other things can help

Sometimes being distracted from our problems can help us to manage our emotions and feel better about what we are facing. If it feels appropriate, you may be able to help your friend by helping them spend some time focused on other things, such as a movie, a game, discussing interests or finding things to laugh about.

Use support if you need it

Supporting others can be demanding and you (and your friend) may benefit if you access support to help with this. You could try your university support services, or use the resources on Student Space. You may also like to read more on this topic on the Student Minds website.

Support for a friend

Look after yourself

Looking after your own wellbeing and making time for your other relationships, interests and hobbies will help you to maintain your own wellbeing whilst supporting your friend. By resting, having fun and focussing on other things you will be more able to support your friend and they may also be reassured that supporting them is not having a negative impact on you.

Page last reviewed: June 2024