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Give a Little Help to Your Friend

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How to support someone close to you.

Give a Little Help to Your Friend: The Right Way to Help Someone Close to You

As we all know better than ever right now, life can get hard. Tough times yield a range of negative emotions, from sorrow to depression to helplessness.

Sometimes we notice emotional changes in a friend or loved one that indicate they are having a tough time. “You know something isn’t right, but it can be hard to tell if the person is an adjustment period or if they are suffering from a mental illness,” says Marc S. Lener, MD, founder and CEO of the Singula Institute.

It can also be hard to know how and when to step in. It’s sticky. If we do nothing, the person might think we don’t care. But if we show support in an inappropriate way, we risk seeming insincere.

To help, here are 10 tips for showing support to a friend or loved one:

Tailor your approach. The best way to lend support depends on how well you know the person, as well as the individual’s personality traits. Consider her ability to cope on her own, the severity of her distress, how well you can relate to her feelings, and whether she may need professional help.

Assess the situation.  A good first step is to ask the person whether there is something going on in her life that is causing stress. “Instead of immediately offering advice, try to listen and understand,” Dr. Lener says. When your friend or loved one decides she is ready to talk, be ready to put everything aside and listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t offer advice. Just give your ear.

Look past a hard exterior. When people seem the most distant and least lovable is often when they need love and support the most. If the person is unapproachable, start by simply asking if everything is OK and letting her know you are there.

Ask open-ended questions. “Asking targeted, open-ended questions will help the person vent or just share how he feels. This will help him move toward a solution he can take ownership of,” says Ted Sun, PhD, president and CEO of Transcontinental Institution of Higher Education in Dublin, Ohio. A good example: “It looks like you’ve been having a hard time lately; may I ask what’s been going on?” Then ask additional clarifying questions to help both you and the person better understand.

Curtail the cliches. Before you utter a cliched phrase that may sound ingenuine, such as “everything will be fine,” think about a more authentic way to express your concern, says Lori Ryland, PhD, chief clinical officer of Pinnacle Treatment Centers. Sometimes, simple empathy and validation is best. Say things like, “That sounds difficult. I’m really sorry to hear it.”

Be honest. You won’t help your friend if you just tell him what he wants to hear. Share with the person what you see in terms of changes in behavior or mood. This requires him to have some degree of trust in you that you can see what he cannot see in himself, Dr. Lener says.

Help where help is needed. Instead of a general “let me know what I can do to help,” which puts the ball in the other person’s court, lend help where it is needed. If you see your friend’s fridge is empty, go get groceries. If you notice laundry piling up when you visit, throw it in the wash.

Get ready for discomfort. Being there for a friend during a hard time can be uncomfortable and awkward, and it can awaken negative feelings in yourself. But it’s necessary. Be the kind of friend who is comfortable with discomfort, one who can sit with a friend who is struggling and be supportive without trying to take away the pain.

Reach out in writing. It may seem cold, but in this day and age, writing a caring text or email can help the receiver’s emotions flow. “As people write, they are forced to organize their thoughts and stand back and reflect on what they say, which helps validate their emotions,” Dr. Sun says.

Help the person find help. If your friend or loved one continues to stay down for an extended period of time or starts to show signs of depression, such as pessimism, loss of energy, eating more or less than normal, or increased drug or alcohol use, offer to help him find professional help. Reassure him that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. In cases of severe depression, it may warrant taking the person to the hospital to be evaluated by a physician immediately.

If your friend or loved one shows signs or suicide, text HOME to 741741, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or dial 911.

Signs include the following:

  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Reckless or impulsive behavior
  • Suicidal comments or threats
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Give a Little Help to Your Friend

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