How to help your Lancaster Uni friends when they’re struggling with their mental health

It’s OK to feel overwhelmed

University is a challenge. Whether you’re looking at the actual degree work itself or making friends, it’s a stress that can be completely overwhelming. Add in the last year and a half we’ve all experienced, and it’s not surprising that a recent study has found that one in five university students suffer from a mental health issue.

Too often, I have found myself in the position of experiencing one of my friends coming to me and saying they are struggling with a mental health issue. I want to say that I handled each situation perfectly and gave them the best help possible, but I’m not a trained counsellor or psychiatrist.

The first time, I sat there for about 10 minutes before I even started talking, because I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to be able to empathise, but the right words weren’t appearing.

Since then, each time another of my friends approaches me with the same situation, I feel more competent at being able to comfort and help. But listening to my friends tell me they’re in pain is hard, especially when I’m not even sure what I’m saying to them is right.

How much support should you give them before you nudge them in the direction of the university services, and how often do you check up on them without becoming an annoyance? I’m constantly scared that our friendships will stop being friendships and instead turn into therapy sessions – not out of choice but from the fact that I need my friends to know it’s alright to talk to me about anything they’re struggling with.

So, to help both me and everyone who has been in the same position, we’ve done some research and created a list of everything you can do to help your Lancs (or any) friends who are struggling with their mental health.

Keep including and inviting them

Even if your friend says no, nine times out of 10 you should make sure they still feel like they are included in whatever is going on, otherwise this may make them feel ostracised and even lower than they already are.

If you’re experiencing a mental health problem, it’s harder to be sociable but they’re still the same person you know and love, so don’t treat them any differently. Keep including them in all your social activities and offer to do the things you’d normally do with them such as go and get a drink or a bite to eat from Costa.

Check-in regularly to see how they are

If they need you to check in regularly then do that. Just keep trying to be patient with them as it may take a while for your friend to feel comfortable talking about what they’re going through, or there could be periods where they’re less communicative.

Listen and ask questions

It’s important that they feel able to come to you to talk, and trust that you are a safe space. Listen to what they say and repeat what they have said back to them to ensure you have understood it.

You don’t need to agree, but by showing you understand what they’ve said and how they feel you are letting them know that you respect their feelings. You should keep any questions open-ended and try to keep your language neutral.

Visit them in their safe space

Try to meet in an area that feels comfortable for them; it’s about the help that they need, and if an open field helps, then that’s the spot to go to.

Notice and remind them of their small victories

Sometimes, it can be difficult to even reply to a message. Make sure to celebrate any of their small victories with them, as it’s unlikely that your friend will pick up on them by themselves.

Learn about their health problem

Make sure that you set time aside with no distractions and let them share as much or little as they want. Don’t try to diagnose or second guess their feelings; we’re not medical experts or trained counsellors so don’t try to make assumptions regarding what is wrong or interrupt with your own diagnosis or solutions.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of different mental illnesses and learn how treatments work so you know what side effects you may see, when to look for improvements and which ones to look for first.

Offer them help in seeking professional support and provide information on ways to do this

You could suggest going to the GP with them or help them talk to another friend or family member. Just try to not take control and allow them to make their own decisions regarding their well-being.

In a moment of crisis, it is good to listen without making judgements and concentrate on their needs in that moment. You need to ask what would help them and reassure them whilst avoiding confrontation. Encourage them to seek professional help and signpost them to practical information or resources. If they have hurt themselves, make sure they get the first aid they need.

If it’s a close friend, they might not want to talk to you about it, so try not to take this personally. Talking to someone you love can be difficult as they are probably worried about hurting you as well. Just be open and honest, making sure they know you care.

For more information about how to seek help for a mental health problem, click here.

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