Supporting a friend with emotional and behavioral issues
Do you have a friend who is struggling emotionally, not coping well, or using drugs or alcohol as an escape? It is important to understand that unaddressed emotional health problems can have serious consequences. These problems can make it hard for students to succeed in school and can lead to substance abuse, dangerous behaviors, or thoughts of suicide. When students are asked who they would turn to for help if they were in emotional distress, most 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 are you going to be a friend?
How are you going to know what to look for?
Balancing all life’s demands—school, work, family responsibilities, social relationships, etc.—can be stressful and many people get overwhelmed, anxious and overextended. 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. They may be dealing with depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders that generally will require attention and professional treatment.
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 (mania) that may include rushed thoughts, bursts of energy, sleeplessness and compulsive behavior, e.g. excessive spending or promiscuous sexual behavior
- Severe anxiety or stress not appropriate to the situation
- Constant feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
Many times, a decline in emotional health can lead to isolation and the person suffering may become very secretive in order to hide the problem. A friend who has “dropped off the face of the earth” or behaving unusually could be a sign of a problem. It is important to try and make contact so you can assess if any of the warning signs mentioned above are present.
How are you going to be there?
How are you going to respond to a friend 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 he or she is feeling. If the person struggling is more of a recent acquaintance, your role may involve letting someone else know about the problem immediately. Regardless, it is important to remember that you are NOT a mental health counselor or a psychologist and it isn’t your job to provide treatment. Your role is to be supportive and encourage him or her to reach out to family, CSM Counseling Services, 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 he or she 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. Remember:
- Don't enable them by covering up for missed classes or other obligations
- Don't continue to participate with them in behaviors, e.g. drinking, that are agitating their mental health
- Don't 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
- Never 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
- 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
How are you going to know what to say?
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 are not 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 him or her, 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 check-up 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 ethnic groups 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 to 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 him- or herself or someone else, it is important that you don’t try to deal with this situation alone! Call 911 if there is an immediate threat or harm. After calling 911, you can contact your campus public safety (LaPlata: 301-934-7888, Leonardtown: 240-725-5333, Prince Frederick: 443-550-6033), Waldorf Center: 911), CSM Counseling Services (301-935-7577), or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for guidance.