How to Help A Friend Who's Struggling Emotionally

Every day we ask questions like “how are you?” and “what’s up?” as a way of saying “hi” when passing friends in the hall, responding to emails and posting on Facebook walls. But how often do we get meaningful responses to those questions that tell us how our friends are really doing? If you have a friend who is struggling emotionally, not coping well or using drugs or alcohol to escape, it’s important to understand that unaddressed emotional health problems can have serious consequences. These problems can make it hard to succeed in work or school, and lead to addiction, dangerous behaviors, or thoughts of suicide. When asked who they would turn to for help if they were in emotional distress, most people list their friends as a top source of support. Are you prepared to recognize a friend in need and steer them toward help? Would you know what to do?

How to Tell if a Friend is Struggling

Balancing all life’s demands — school, work, relationships — can be stressful and many people get overwhelmed, anxious and overexerted – so it can be tough to tell if a friend is just dealing with the everyday challenges of life or struggling with a larger problem. A friend in trouble might need professional help to develop better coping and stress management skills, or they may be dealing with illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders that generally require attention and treatment.

Here are some common signs that a friend needs help dealing with emotional issues or a mental health problem:

  • Depression or apathy that interferes with obligations or participating in social activities
  • Lack of coping skills around day-to-day problems or extreme reactions to certain situations
  • Extreme highs, referred to as mania, that may include rushed thoughts, bursts of energy, sleeplessness and compulsive behavior (like excessive spending or promiscuous sexual behavior)
  • Severe anxiety or stress
  • Constant feelings of sadness or hopelessness Increased use of alcohol or drugs
What Can You Do?

How you respond to a friend or classmate that is showing signs of emotional distress or a potential problem is often dependent on your relationship with that person. If you have a long history and friendship with the person, you may be a key resource for support and feel comfortable having a discussion with your friend about how they are feeling. If the person struggling is a more recent acquaintance, like a roommate or classmate, your role may involve letting someone else know about the problem. It is important to remember that you aren’t a therapist and it isn’t your job to provide treatment. Your role is to be supportive and encourage them to reach out to family, the counseling center or another medical professional as a first step — even if you don’t fully understand the problem or its severity. Despite your good intentions, your friend might be reluctant to accept the possibility that they could have an emotional disorder and they may not react to support in a positive way. They might say that the best way to help is to “back off” or ignore the problem, but it is important that you don’t: Enable them by covering up for missed obligations Continue to participate with them in behaviors (like drinking) that are agitating their mental health Back down on the importance of seeking help – remember, many emotional disorders require professional support and aren’t something people can fix on their own Feel like you are going behind your friend’s back if you think it’s necessary to tell someone else about the problem without your friend’s consent

What to Say to a Friend Who’s Struggling

Taking on the burden of a friend in emotional distress can be extremely stressful and draining so remember to recognize your limits and take care of your own emotional health. When we see someone who is sad, angry or anxious, it is our instinct to ask “what’s wrong?” However, someone dealing with a mental health problem may have certain thoughts or feelings that aren’t related to a specific situation or event. So when approaching a friend who is showing signs of a problem or dealing with emotional distress, it is important to be patient and supportive. You may not be able to understand how your friend is feeling and it may seem uncomfortable or awkward to discuss personal and emotional issues, but you can listen and let them know they aren’t alone.

Some key points you can communicate to a friend in need:

  • We all go through tough times. Sometimes people see asking for help as a sign of weakness so you can comfort your friend by giving them an example of a time you or someone you know struggled and needed support.
  • You can feel better. Your friend may feel hopeless or like no one can understand or help them, so it’s important to make them see that reaching out for support is the first step to feeling better. Mental health problems are treatable and manageable once identified, so sometimes we need a mental checkup in the same way we get other medical exams.
  • It’s OK to ask for help. Remember that our backgrounds, cultures and experiences can have a huge impact on how we view help-seeking. Some people may come from families or cultures where asking for help or seeing a mental health professional is shunned or thought of as weak. Thinking about why a friend might be reluctant get help can be important in deciding how to suggest they reach out for support.

If you are concerned that a friend is thinking about harming themselves or someone else, it is important that you don’t try and deal with that situation alone. You can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1- 800-273-TALK for guidance or contact your school’s counseling center or a mental health professional in your community.

  • If there is an immediate threat of harm on campus, call the Arcadia University Public Safety Emergency at 215-572-2999. You may also contact or visit Counseling Services. When Counseling Services is closed, call Public Safety at 215-572-2999.
  • If you are off campus when the situation is taking place, please call 911.

Additional Resources

To learn more about what to do when a friend is struggling with their mental health visit Active Minds.

If you have a friend or family member who recently started receiving treatment for a mental health issue visit Active Minds to learn more on how you can best support them through this process

Resources for Managing the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

If you are interested in learning more about mental health, suicide prevention, and how to support a friend or family member please check out these helpful links:

Below are some videos that can help you get the conversation started


How to Help a Friend

Supporting a Friend in Need

How to Start the Conversation

Signs to Look For

For more information on how to talk to a friend about mental health visit Seize The Awkward.