How to Help a Friend

It is difficult to watch a friend in distress; it can be even more difficult deciding what to do to help them.  If and when you find yourself in this situation, the Counseling Service offers brief consultations to help you better understand your concerns about your friend, the dynamics of the situation, community resources, and possible plans of action.  The Counseling Service also offers more in-depth workshops for groups of students sharing common concerns.

Whether or not you choose to seek support from the Counseling Service in person, the following outline is offered to help you think about how to most effectively identify and engage with a friend in need of added support. 

How to Help a Friend

If you ever become concerned about a roommate, teammate, or friend, you may hesitate to do anything for fear of making things worse or simply because you don't know what to do.  Below are some guidelines about what to do if and when that situation arises.  We'll discuss what observable behaviors may signal concern, how to engage with a friend in distress, and how to connect both them and yourself with supportive resources on campus.  In our experience, after having weathered a crisis, clients often identify a friend's genuine expressions of concern as having been pivotal in helping them to get the help that they needed.

Signs of Distress

Everyone experiences distress.  It can be difficult to manage academic and athletic challenges, interpersonal relationships, and changing family dynamics.  More often than not, the distress we experience is temporary and circumscribed.  At times, we all exhibit one or more of the behaviors listed below.  However, when several of these behaviors occur at once, if they become debilitating, or if they persist over time they may signal more severe difficulties that warrant professional help.

  • Deterioration of physical appearance or personal hygiene 
  • Excessive fatigue or sleep difficulties 
  • Skipping class or absence from other activities 
  • Difficulty completing schoolwork or other obligations
  • Avoidance of friends or uncharacteristic social isolation 
  • Marked decrease in concentration, motivation or energy 
  • Visible increase or decrease in weight 
  • Looking sad, worried or preoccupied 
  • Irritability or temper outbursts 
  • Impulsive behavior or acting with poor judgement 
  • Direct statements about problems with family or friends 
  • Statements of hopelessness or comments about death, self-harm or suicide

Approaching a Friend

It can be uncomfortable to approach a friend about their well being.  You may worry about invading their privacy, making things worse, or you may simply not know what to say.  If you are genuinely concerned about somebody, it is okay to express interest or concern – they can always decline to talk with you if they are uncomfortable.  Whatever the case, your expression of genuine concern may be what your friend needs to seek help, if not from you, from someone else. Below are some pointers for initially approaching a friend about whom you are concerned. 

  • Choose a time and a place that is most likely to ensure privacy.
  • Let your friend know you are concerned in terms of their own worries or needs.
    • For example, if they have expressed sadness or worry, reflect that back to them, let them know that they have been heard, validate their feelings, and offer sincere empathy.
    • If you have noticed any of the behaviors listed above, share what you have observed and explain why this worries you.
  • Avoid labeling your friend or their behavior.  Whether accurate or inaccurate, telling someone that they have a disorder or “are” a certain way may trigger defenses that keep them from getting help.
  • If your friend isn’t interested in talking, explain that you are open to talking at another time if and when they are interested.
  • Remind your friend of supportive resources available on campus including counseling services.
    • If your friend has doubts or questions, looking at this website can be a good first step to learning more about supportive services and to seeking help.
    • Offering to walk your friend to the Counseling Service may help them with the initial step of seeking support
    • Reassure your friend (and yourself) that a referral to counseling services is not a refusal of your help; it is an offer for increased support from impartial professionals that have added knowledge and experience.
    • Avoid making promises of absolute confidentiality.  If your friend is a risk to themselves or others, it is important that you seek professional help right away.  Student safety is a primary concern.  You can:
      • Promise that you care about their well-being, respect their autonomy, and won't divulge their confidence unless you are afraid for their safety.
      • Promise that if they want to share something personal with you, you will do everything you can to safeguard it and help them to deal with whatever it is. 

Talk of Suicide or Violence

You should never ignore a student's comments or behavior regarding suicide or violence.  Don't assume that these are only jokes, ploys for attention, or that they are just passing moods. If you are not comfortable talking directly to your friend or you feel he/she is not responding, bring your concerns to someone at counseling services, your dean, or your residence hall supervisor.  While students who talk or behave in suicidal or in violent ways certainly need your sympathy and support, don't assume that this is all they need.  Individuals who have difficulty managing their feelings and impulses may require professional counseling and/or medication.  

Take Care of Yourself    

Engaging with someone in distress, whether as their confidant or simply as their friend, can be stressful.  In addition to feelings of sympathy and a desire to help, you may also feel stressed, helpless, fatigued and even angry or resentful.  If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by a situation, you can call Counseling Services and receive a confidential consultation regarding your friend.  Remember, while you may play a very special role in your friend's life, there are other caring individuals on campus who may be able to offer them support that you can't.  It is not your role to solve your friend's problem, but to help them access resources that enable them to solve it themselves. 

Counseling Services

Consultations and other services are free and available for all Bowdoin students.  All information shared in counseling is kept confidential. The office hours are Monday - Friday  9 a.m. - 5 p.m. during the academic year, a counselor is also available for emergencies after hours.  

Campus Resources 

Counseling Service: 207-725-3145
Health Service: 207-725-3770
Campus Security: 207-725-3314