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When asked who they would turn to for help if they were in emotional distress, most people list their friends as a top source of support. It can be uncomfortable or awkward to talk about sensitive, personal issues, but being a good friend means reaching out and starting that conversation when you are concerned that a friend is struggling. How you approach a person in distress, though, is often dependent on your relationship with them. If you are worried about and want to help a long-time friend, you may feel more comfortable having a direct, one-on-one conversation with them about how they are feeling. If the person in need of help is a recent acquaintance, such as a roommate or a classmate, you may want to help by letting someone else know (such as an RA or someone at your school’s counseling center) about your concern for that person. They can either handle the situation from there or be able to provide suggestions about what you can do to help.

However you decide to help, keep in mind that you aren’t a therapist and shouldn’t try to provide clinical advice. Your role as a friend is to support and encourage them to reach out for professional help or to let a professional know that you are concerned about a friend. You most likely will be unsure as to what exactly the problem is and the severity of it, but just listening to a friend or reaching out for help on their behalf can make a world of difference.

Despite your good intentions in trying to help your friend, don’t be surprised or discouraged if the person reacts in a negative way. Your friend might not be willing to accept that they may be struggling and in need of support, and may therefore tell you to “back off” or that they don’t need any help. If a friend rejects your help, it’s important for you to continue trying to get your friend the help that they may need. Remember, while it may not be certain that your friend is suffering from a mental health disorder, if they are, most require professional support and, if left untreated, can lead to serious consequences such as addiction, dangerous behaviors, and thoughts of suicide. You will do no harm by continuing to try to get them help.

In helping your friend, you should also try to avoid:

  • Enabling the person by covering up for their missed obligations
  • Participating in activities with them (such as drinking or excessive partying) that may exacerbate their mental health problem
  • Feeling like you are betraying your friend by telling someone else about your concern without your friend’s consent. Don’t let the fear of your friend getting mad at you stop you from getting them help – trust your gut and follow through on your concern if you think there might be a problem

Taking on the task of helping a friend in distress is one of the most important ways to be a good friend. In doing so, however, remember to also recognize your limits and look after your own emotional health as well. You won’t be as effective in helping others without first taking care of yourself!

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