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:

If your friend…

  • … is always in distress of some kind
  • … rarely seems to feel better for more than a little while
  • … is isolating him/herself from family or close friends
  • … stops taking care of him/herself
  • … is using an excessive amount of alcohol or other drugs
  • … seems to be ruining close relationships with others
  • … severely restricts calories, exercises excessively or binges/purges
  • … feels desperate or hopeless that things will change
  • … talks about wanting to hurt him/herself or hurt someone else
  • … has problems that are starting to feel overwhelming to YOU

In these cases it may be helpful to:

  • Tell your friend about your concern. Say that you've noticed that s/he is in a lot of distress and ask what you can do to help. Avoid judgmental or provocative statements and instead focus on the facts (e.g.., You aren't coming to class much and you seem really down all of the time).
  • Ask if your friend has considered talking to a professional counselor. Give your friend information about the Student Counseling Service and, if you are comfortable doing so, offer to accompany him or her to the first appointment.
  • Talk confidentially with a member of the Campus Awareness and Risk Evaluation team. If your friend's problems seem severe or you are worried that s/he might hurt themselves or someone else, 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.

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 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 killing 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 killing 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 Service at 464-3120
  • 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 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 and 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.
  • Give your friend the phone number for 24-hour crisis resources, such as Contact (315-251-0600) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).
  • 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.