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How to respond when a friend is not OK

Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a good friend,” Bill Watterson.

There’s a beauty in friendships that extends far beyond fun and laughter during the good times. A strong friendship means supporting each other when life gets tough, and studies have shown that having these supportive relationships is a strong protective factor against mental illness. Not only that, the act of giving support to a friend is as good for your mental health as receiving it.

Sometimes, though, it’s tricky to know what to do when someone you care about is having a hard time. We asked our Senior Lecturer Dr Peter Richard-Herbert for some strategies on how to help when friends need to unload. Here’s what he had to say:

  1. Start simple – “I’m sorry you’re not OK right now, would you like to talk about it” tells them you believe them and are willing to listen. It also validates their experience.
  1. The right place and time – choose a quiet location to talk things through and make sure you have plenty of time so they don’t feel rushed
  1. Listen carefully – encourage them to do the talking and listen attentively (nodding will show them you’re paying attention and understanding)
  1. Observe – look out for signs they may need professional help:
  • appearance (dishevelled/unkempt)
  • behaviour (erratic/numb/angry)
  • speech (slurred/slowed down/sped up)
  • thought processes (are they making sense? are they displaying strange ideas?)
  1. Ask – if you feel you can, ask them if they have professional support, like a GP, support group or mental health professional:
  • If they do, ask if they’d like you to get in touch with them, and offer to go with them for an appointment
  • If they don’t have professional support, ask if you can contact a GP as a starting point or if they would like to speak to someone from a helpline
  1. Follow-up – whether or not your friend has had help from a professional, it’s really important to keep checking in. They will likely be feeling emotional after opening up to you and it will mean a lot to them to know you’re always there.

If you’re unsure what to do in these sorts of situations, feel your friend is at risk or needs help, call Lifeline on 131114. They are available 24 hours every day.

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