Second semester of my freshman year of college, the counseling center sent a friend of mine to the hospital. The counselor was concerned that she was suicidal and both she and my friend thought it best that she sought outside treatment. While the choice was difficult, it was in the best interest of her safety and well-being. Once I found out, all I wanted to do was help her, but I did not know exactly how. Some friends and I sought guidance through both the counseling center and student affairs and I learned quite a bit about college resources both for my friend who was struggling and for me – a member of her support system.
While she was in the hospital, I met with her case manager in student affairs, who was incredibly helpful. He provided ride vouchers so that my friends and I could visit her for free. He also offered to reach out to my professors to encourage them to relax on deadlines. Additionally, my friends and I met with a counselor at the counseling center to discuss how best to navigate her return to campus. I was lucky to have friends alongside me so that we could work together to figure it all out. Although taking care of her was a priority, I could not forget to focus on myself and my success at school.
In talking to peers, I found that while it is not uncommon to find oneself helping a friend with their mental health struggles in college, it is uncommon to automatically know what to do. When I was faced with the task of helping my friend, I was confused with what exactly my role was. I knew I was not a therapist, but I also knew I needed to be a different kind of friend. It took me a little while to discover that balance, but once I did, I could be the support system I wanted to be. So here are some tips I learned that helped me and hopefully can help you:
- First and foremost, if your friend is in any immediate danger, get them help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), campus police, or the counseling center. Do not take it upon yourself to handle a situation you are not equipped for.
- Encourage your friend to seek professional help either at your college or elsewhere. Let them know that you are there for them, but remind them what your role is. You are their friend, not a licensed therapist. It might be helpful to go with your friend to student affairs or the counseling center. It may be easier for your friend to seek help knowing that you are by their side.
- Establish boundaries. Let your friend know where you draw the line in terms of the type of relationship you want to have. It is possible your relationship with that person will change. It may be difficult to accept that change, but know it is okay.
- Do not bear the brunt of your friend’s needs. Be a part of their support system, do not be the entire support system. If being a part of that support system is overwhelming, you may find that time off from one another is therapeutic. Mental health can be a tricky and demanding topic. Know that it is alright to take a temporary step back from one another.
- Do not be afraid to get help yourself. Helping a friend can be mentally taxing. You are not wrong to need to practice self-care, whatever that looks like. I recommend talking to the counseling center or student affairs to understand what options (including academic leniencies) exist.
- Encourage behaviors that aid good physical and mental health. Alcohol, partying, and drugs may be tempting, but are not the right choice in times of healing.
- Find things you enjoy together that do not revolve around your friend’s current struggles. You both deserve some stress-free fun with one another. This step may also help to rectify tension in a friendship that may result from shifting dynamics.
- Finally, don’t forget to love your friend unconditionally while they are going through a rough time. Know that the hard times are not the only times that you have together. Things may change and there might be challenges, but few friendships worth keeping are perfectly simple.