When experiencing difficulties, students are more likely to tell their friends than anyone else (Student Minds, ‘Mind the Gap’ Report, 2011). Therefore, it’s important to know how to support your friends in an effective way that bears in mind your own wellbeing too.
Create a culture of support. Remind friends that things they’re valued and that things they’re doing are important, even if you can’t always be around for them. Regularly ask how things are, perhaps offering to go on a walk or get food together to catch-up, especially if you haven’t heard from them in a while; doing so makes it easier to raise when they’re struggling. Probe when things don’t seem ok and offer to listen, though respect if they don’t want to talk at that point: feeling that you’re there if they need you is important in itself.
To most effectively support a friend opening up to you, practice the principles of active listening. These principles include being open and non-judgmental, thinking about nonverbal cues like posture and tone of voice. Validate their experiences; never dismiss them, even if they seem insignificant to you. Don’t make assumptions about how your friend is feeling. Ask openly phrased questions and summarise to check your understanding, allowing them to correct you. Reflect ideas back to encourage them to elaborate. Finally, be non-directive: often people just want a listening ear and don’t want advice, though they may want to explore their options.
While listening is the most important thing, you may also wish to provide more continued and practical support to close friends who are struggling. Make an effort to keep inviting them to do things, e.g. getting lunch, even if they don’t always say yes and adapting plans where necessary. Check in with how they’re feeling and let them know you care. Don’t fade out. If required and desired, facilitate your friend accessing support services: for example, sit with them while they make a GP appointment or email their tutor. Ask if there is any practical help you could provide, like accompanying them food shopping, if you’re able to (try and coordinate this with your own errands). Remind friends to self-care and to put their wellbeing foremost, noting that their self-care methods and opportunities will likely differ from yours.
Remember yourself. While you care about your friends and would like to support them as much as possible, you also have your own commitments and problems too. Emotional labour is difficult and support in supporting others is essential. You could speak to the Students’ Unions’ Advice Service, your college welfare officer or tutor, as well as friends or family, keeping care with anonymity and respecting your friend’s personal information. Make sure to mark out boundaries, saying when you are unable to provide support due to time or expertise, letting them know when you will be available and/or facilitating access to other support services. Finally, make sure you’re getting some support back, even if the support isn’t immediate. Well done for doing an important thing and take care.
For more information, see this Guide to Supporting Friends.