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How to help a friend find the support they need

Posted 9:50 a.m. Friday, Sept. 30, 2022

Two people walking together on the UW-La Crosse campus in fall 2020.

Counseling Services staff share insight on how to provide support

Someone close to you has anxiety or depression, and you don’t know how to help. You may wonder if you should even get involved. A friend or loved one can get involved. Here are some ways: 

  • Listen 
  • Empathize  
  • Ask how to help 

How to support someone is a common question, says Crystal Champion, interim director of UW-La Crosse' Counseling Services. UWL’s Counseling & Testing Center is a resource for not only people seeking help for themselves, but also for those looking to support someone close to them.   

First, it is important to know what supporting someone means, says Champion. Supporting someone is not about taking responsibility for their issues or circumstances and trying to fix them. Rather, caring, helping, and encouraging our loved ones may be exactly what they need. We can’t make anyone else less anxious or depressed, but we can be there with them through their struggles.  

Also, it is important to know that working through depression or anxiety isn’t instantaneous. Typically, it isn’t just one thing that leads to someone feeling better. Instead, recovery is a process that happens gradually and may involve a variety of insights and behavior or life changes that accumulate over time. 

Ways to support someone who is anxious or depressed 

  • Let the person know that you care, and help them feel understood. You can use your own experiences to guide you in empathizing with the other person without assuming you know exactly what they are experiencing. You might say, “I think I’ve experienced something like this” and then ask follow-up questions to see if their feelings are similar. Or “If that was happening to me, I would be really worried about X, Y or Z. What are you worried might happen?” 
  • Don’t minimize their experience. Saying “others have it worse” or “I worry about tests too. It’s not a big deal” are examples of minimizing someone’s experience. Often, when a person is struggling, problems can seem overwhelming to them that might not seem overwhelming to you. Even if you can't relate to the situation, you can still focus on relating their feelings with statements like, “It sounds like you might be feeling really sad.”
  • Ask them what they think might help. Asking what can help can open up a discussion. Based on their response, you might be asked to help problem solve an issue or just spend time with someone who is struggling. If they don’t know, listening and trying to understand someone better is almost always helpful. 
  • Seek out services if needed. If you and the individual who is anxious or depressed feel you’ve reached the end of your ability to work through it on your own, you may decide to seek out mental health services. Some people may appreciate support with that process. You might suggest, “Could we look at the website together and see what resources look like?” UWL students have access to the UWL Counseling & Testing Center, which is confidential and free to enrolled students. 
  • Dispel myths about counseling.
    • Going to counseling is NOT about having someone else solve your problems. You talk with a therapist to explore areas that may be a source of stress or discomfort and collaborate on setting attainable goals. 
    • It’s NOT something that only desperate people do. Many people seek counseling during difficult times. More than 1,000 UWL students use Counseling Services each year. 
    • No one is going to force you to take medication. Some people do have a level of symptoms where they may want to try medication. UWL students who are interested in talking with a medical provider about medication options can make an appointment at the UWL Student Health Center. 
  • Make offers more than once. Symptoms of anxiety or depression can make someone become isolated. So, a friend or loved one can keep offering invitations even if you are denied the first time. You might want to check in regularly to see if they want to connect or need help, but also respect their right to decline. 
  • Share your sense of hope. You may have to hold out hope for someone — more than they have for themselves. Helping them see your hope can be helpful. A simple statement like “I believe this could get better for you” can go a long way.  
  • Know when to seek out crisis resources. If you are concerned for someone’s safety or fear they could be a danger to themselves or someone else, consult with a professional. “Don‘t feel like you need to handle that on your own,” says Champion. “It is better to have an uncomfortable conversation with a friend than to potentially experience the death of a friend.” 
  • Learn more about communicating support. In this TEDxUWLaCrosse video, Dena Huisman shares effective ways to communicate support to someone. Kognito is another great resource to learn more about how to help others and practice these conversations. 

How to help someone with an eating disorder 

Along the same lines as supporting someone with anxiety or depression, helping someone with an eating disorder means accepting that you will not be able to fix this issue for someone else. Instead, you can ask how you can be supportive. 

Sometimes someone with an eating disorder doesn’t realize that they have one. Truly caring for someone may mean showing your concern – even if that conversation is uncomfortable.  Open the discussion by sharing what you have objectively observed. Remember it is not your job to diagnose. Examples: 

  • “I noticed you seem to exercise more than you are studying.”  
  • “I noticed when we go out to eat you seem a lot more worried these days about counting macros.”   
  • “I’m worried because you don't seem to have the energy to do the things you want to do.” 

How to get someone mental health help when they refuse 

Sometimes the individual you are trying to support will not want help right now. As long as the person is not in immediate danger, (in that case, please access crisis resources), you may need to let go of your need to help them by recognizing that getting help is their choice and their responsibility. And you need to remember to care for yourself.  

At UW-La Crosse, Let’s Talk is a great option for students wanting to know how to support someone. Let’s Talk is a video consultation with a CTC counselor, where you have the option of remaining anonymous.  Staff can share available resources with you. 

How to help someone experiencing a panic attack 

When someone is experiencing a panic attack, it is important to keep your message very simple and promote steps to help the person feel grounded. Grounding exercises work to help someone get back into the present moment, in their body and in tune with what we know is real right now.  

“The simplest things we have are our breath, body, and the tangible things around us, so if you are able to get anchored to this moment with your senses, that is the first step to anything else,” explains Champion. 

Techniques include: 

  • Help them gradually slow their breathing. See the “How to relieve stress” blog for breathing techniques.
  • Connect them to their surroundings. “You are in your room. This is a safe place.” Encourage them to feel the chair under their body and their feet on the floor. 
  • Ask what would help using simple yes or no questions. “Is it OK if I stay? Would you like me to breathe with you?  Hold your hand?” Not everyone likes the same things. 
  • Help them find other resources if needed. Connect the individual with crisis resources. On the UWL campus, students can walk a friend to Urgent Care at UWL Counseling & Testing for intermediate intervention from noon-4 p.m. Monday-Friday or utilize after-hours resources for support. Students can also reach out to trained crisis responders at UW Mental Health Support 24/7 by phone or text at 888.531.2142 or chat.

This same advice can be applied to someone who is experiencing a trauma-related flashback or disassociation, where someone loses touch with what is going on around them in response to trauma or other painful experiences.  

Should I see a counselor?  

We might think of trauma as a monumental life stressor such as living through a car accident, experiencing the death of a loved one, or surviving a life-threatening disease, but trauma also can show up in our life in ways that are less evident. 

Trauma can result when an event significantly alters how you view fundamental truths in the world around you such as your safety, stability or level of control. That can lead to discomfort going forward with day-to-day life and potentially impact your ability to function in work or social situations. For instance, maybe someone who you thought loved and cared for you has turned away, or a non-life threatening injury has left you uneasy about your health, or bullying from high school continues to impact your present-day interactions. Whether your response to trauma is more or less evident, it could be helpful to talk to a professional and work on treating the impact of it. Accepting it and working through your feelings can help you move forward in life with a healthier outlook. 

The UWL campus also provides suicide prevention training called Campus Connect. It is offered throughout the year. Contact UWL Counseling and Testing to learn when it will be offered next.  

See the UWL Counseling & Testing Center self-help resources for more on helping someone close to you. Special sections are dedicated to caregivers and faculty/staff. 

UWL Counseling and Testing is on Instagram @uwlctc.