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How To Support A Friend Who Is Struggling

Friends and family are the essence of life, and are hugely important to us all in our individual ways. When someone you care about starts to go through a tough time, it can be difficult to know how best to help them cope, and what you can do for them. If you’re struggling to deal with how they’re feeling, are looking for ways to help them, or are worried about their safety, we’re here to help.

This article covers the below information:

How to respond when a friend opens up to you
Looking after yourself during your loved one’s tough time
Signs suggesting someone may be struggling

1. How to respond when a friend opens up to you

Talking through how you’re feeling is so important when it comes to positive mental health. If a friend trusts you enough to begin to open up to you and share how they’re struggling, that’s a great step in the right direction. It may be the first time they’ve started to talk about things, and could find it difficult to know how to put their emotions into words. There are lots of helpful ways you can respond to them, in order to encourage them to look into their feelings, and the below offers a few suggestions:

Listen. Listening is absolutely key in supporting your friend through an emotional difficulty. Try to let them share with you in their own words how they’re feeling, without interrupting them or making any assumptions / judgements. It may be helpful to adopt more silences when you’re talking to them. This can feel counter-intuitive, but sometimes silence offers a pause for breath, or a space, to help process information and gather up thoughts.

Encouragement. You can help your friend to feel more comfortable by offering responses that help to show you’re interested, are actively listening, and would like them to continue with their thought process and discussions with you. Small nods of support, ‘mhmmms,’ or even a shoulder rub can help to convey this message.

Open Questions. Open-ended questions are a great way to encourage your friend to think about their wider situation, without shutting down the conversation into factual ‘yes or no’ answers. Try questions that start with ‘how, what, or why,’ as opposed to questions that generate one-word answers.

Summarising & Clarifying. Throughout different points in the conversation it may helpful to summarise where you’ve got to so far, or to repeat a relevant point which may have been acknowledged. This rephrasing of your friends own words can help them to gain perspective on what they’re talking about, offer another potential way of looking at their situation, and also reiterate that you care, are listening, and are engaged in the conversation.

The Samaritans listening wheel is also a great source of help for ways to support your loved ones during difficult conversations.

2. Looking after yourself

*Though you want to help, it’s much harder and less effective when you’re not feeling well yourself.*

It’s extremely important to monitor how supporting a friend with difficulties may be affecting you. It’s normal to feel upset, shocked, angry or any other mix of emotions when you become involved in their world so deeply.

We advise trying to only take on a realistic amount. Manage how much help you can provide and cope with in your own life, as supporting someone individually can be a big responsibility. Encourage them to try to reach out to others they can trust, for example their family, teachers or other adults. Set boundaries to establish what they can and can’t expect from you, in order to help manage your relationships and provide a source of stability. Finally, we advise being mindful of your own feelings, and keep talking to your support network and those you trust about how you’re reacting and managing internally.

3. Signs suggesting someone may be struggling

Everyone reacts differently to stresses and pressures in life, and their is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to determining when someone is struggling. There are however some generic actions which may or may not be used by your loved ones, so it could be helpful to keep a check-out for the below:

Acting distant or different to their usual self
Withdrawing from meeting up, or usual social messages
Becoming more isolated and spending unusual lengths of time on their own
Becoming less chatty or smiley, and laughing less
Seeming to have suffered from a knock to their self-esteem
Discussing worrying or severe feelings, and using concerning expressions such as ‘I can’t cope anymore.’
Stopping their hobbies or activities usually enjoyed
Smoking, drinking, or using drugs when they previously didn’t before.

There are also a range of physical changes you may notice in a person who is suffering, including dressing differently, gaining or losing weight, looking tired or being unable to concentrate, not washing or taking care of themselves etc.

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