Supporting your friends

It can be really difficult to know how best to support a friend if they are having a hard time or if they are experiencing mental health difficulties. It can feel scary or overwhelming to reach out to someone and we hope this information here will support you to do this if you feel able. 

It is likely that our friends are the first people who notice if we’re struggling, or are the first people we may choose to speak to. 

If we are at university and away from home, it’s important that we learn how best to support others and also how to look after ourselves. We hope that being at university will be an enjoyable experience, but it is also a time of great change and sometimes it can be difficult to adjust to this. 

We will all experience some level of distress or mental health issue at some time in our lives. This maybe in relation to a specific event, such as a bereavement, or may have no obvious cause. It’s important to remember that whatever your friend may be experiencing is entirely normal and will likely be very common.

It is important to remember that you are not and cannot be responsible for anyone else’s wellbeing. The information here relates to supporting your friend to get the best help for themselves. We will also look at how you can take care of yourself in this process. 

What are the signs that someone may be struggling?

There are several indicators that your friend could be struggling with their mood or mental health. Of course, we all have off days but if you notice these signs for two weeks or more, or they are out of character, you may want to consider offering support if you can. 

  • Withdrawing from social occasions and becoming isolated
  • Withdrawing from friendships in general
  • Changes in attendance at university
  • Being tearful 
  • Being moody and irritable
  • Overeating or eating too little and/or weight changes
  • Changes in sleeping patterns – waking early or sleeping late
  • Not enjoying things as much as they used to

How to start the conversation

If you feel your friends is struggling and you feel you want to and are able to offer support, it’s worth thinking about how to do this. 

  • Even if a few of you are concerned, it’s best to speak with your friend on a one-to-one basis so they do not feel overwhelmed. 
  • Choose somewhere familiar where you won’t be disturbed or interrupted.
  • Have something else as the focus so it doesn’t feel too intimidating for you or them – go for coffee or a walk together.
  • Choose your time carefully – avoid periods of stress, either for you or your friend. Also, make sure there is enough time to give the conversation space.

Things to think about

  • It is not your responsibility to make someone feel better, to ‘cure’ anyone, or to be their therapist. Sometimes a non-judgemental listening ear is all that is needed. 
  • Use open body language
  • Use open questions – ‘How are you feeling?’ rather than ‘Are you depressed?’

Sometimes the things our friends might say can be upsetting or scary – try not to respond with shock or judgement. 

  • Your friend might not want to talk to you or be ready yet – this is ok. They may feel more comfortable speaking with someone else, but they will know you are there to support them. 
  • You may not understand everything that your friend says, and this is ok. Just by listening you will helping. 

What to do to support your friend

It’s likely that if you’ve spoken to your friend, you will have already helped them to feel better. There are other ways to support them too. The best way to do this is by asking them what might make them feel better what sort of things they usually enjoy. Other ways to help could include:

  • Staying in touch by text if they don’t feel like hanging out.
  • Do some exercise or go for a walk together. 
  • If you can spare time regularly, set up a friends ‘date night’, a regular time to do things together like watching a film, favourite show, make and share food together. 

It’s useful to notice that these things are not directly linked to mental health, but they are all things that reduce the risk of isolation, create focus and are enjoyable. 

Helping them to help themselves

Talking to and supporting your friend is a great thing to do, but if they need extra help it is important that they take steps to access other avenues of support if they need to. You can encourage and support them to access support from other services both here at the university or from other services in Leeds. You can find a comprehensive list of services for mental health in Leeds here:

They can also book an appointment with their own GP to discuss options and they can self-refer to Leeds IAPT service. IAPT is a NHS therapy service available in Leeds and other cities across the country. 

What to do in a crisis

If by talking to your friend you learn that they are feeling suicidal AND have plans to act on this, these are some things that may help:

  • Encourage them to seek professional support. 
  • Call Leeds Student Medical Practice on 0113 295 4488 or your GP

Your GP can provide urgent medical/psychiatric attention or referral and has overall responsibility for your physical and mental healthcare.

  • Out-of-hours NHS non-emergency telephone number 111
  • Leeds Crisis Assessment Service: 0300 300 1485 (available 24 hours a day)
  • Dial House: Open Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (6pm-2am). Telephone 0113 260 9328 or text on 07922 249452.

If the situation is life-threatening, then go to A&E.  If you are unable to do this, call 999 for an ambulance. If you are on Leeds University Campus premises or in a Halls of Residence, contact University Campus Security on 0113 343 2222.

Engage in an activity to distract them from their thoughts. For example play a game, watch TV or tidy your room. 

  • Does your friend already have a coping or support plan – ask them to share it with you and support them in putting it into place. 
  • Do they have someone they normally speak with if they feel this way, another friend or family member, if so encourage them to call these people. 
  • If you feel, or your friend tells you, that they cannot keep themselves safe, or they have already hurt themselves, you should call 999 or get them to A&E. If you are on Leeds University Campus or in a Halls of Residence, you should also call Campus Security on 0113 343 2222.

Taking care of yourself

Talking to and caring for other people who are distressed can be difficult and can have an impact on us. It’s really important that you take steps to look after yourself for your own wellbeing. Encouraging and supporting others is great, but you cannot do everything and nor can you do things on behalf of others. It’s important to remember that you can only be responsible for yourself and you are not and cannot be responsible for the wellbeing of others. Compromising yourself and your own health doesn’t help anyone. Here’s some things you can do to take care of yourself:

  • Keep doing the things you enjoy and make time for them.
  • Take time to relax and de-stress. 
  • Speak to a professional if you feel you are struggling yourself.
  • Be clear with your friend about what you can and cannot provide for them. 
  • If your friend talks about things you are not comfortable discussing, be clear about this with them and encourage them to seek support from others. 
  • Make sure you are keeping in touch with the people who are there for you also. 

For more information

Some of the information here was taken from this excellent guide by Student Minds.

There is a comprehensive list of support for both yourself and your friend on the Mindwell website.

A useful resource to help you cope with stress, depression and low mood can be found at Students Against Depression.