From Friend to Therapist: How to Step Up When A Friend Is Down

Whether it’s grief, trauma, an eating disorder, a drinking problem, a drug addiction, or depression and/or anxiety, I have witnessed many friends throughout my years at Tulane go through unimaginable pain. But in these situations, what is our true role as a friend, when do we step in, and what is the best way to do so?

Oftentimes, we don’t know how to help, and stepping into the therapist role can be challenging. For that reason, I have created a step-by-step guide on how to support a friend in need. Disclaimer: this process is not foolproof. Everyone’s pain is different, every context is unique, and nothing can be solved in a few easy steps. But I truly think that these tips can help.

Step 1: Talk to them.

This can sometimes be the hardest step. When we notice that one of our friends has a serious struggle whether they are combatting a drinking problem, showing signs of an eating disorder, or going through an intense period of grief or trauma, we often become alarmed. However, instead of acting on those observations right away, our first thoughts are often: should I say something? What if it’s not my place? What if they don’t want to talk about it?

A) Yes, you should say something. B) If you love them, it is your place. And C) They probably need to talk about it.

When a friend is experiencing pain, that pain is on their mind 24/7. By bringing it up as their friend you’re not “reminding” them of it. Rather, your friend wants to feel acknowledged instead of ignored. Especially if they know that you are aware of their pain, it’s important to check in and ask about it when you are together.

Step 2: Don’t just send a text.

Sending a simple text doesn’t show true compassion as a friend. Texting them: “I heard about ____ and I just wanted you to know that I’m here for you, and if you need anything let me know,” is actually counter-productive. It puts the burden of seeking help on them because now they need to reach out when in need. What your friend really needs is for you to reach out. Be there in person, call them, or send a handwritten letter instead.  

Step 3: Ask the right questions.

Remember to be direct. Asking, “how are you?” probably won’t break their shell. Instead, asking: “I noticed that you have been acting in ___ ways and I’m concerned as someone who loves you. What are you struggling with? How are you doing mentally?” These types of questions help a friend open up and feel comfortable.

Many of us often feel overwhelmed by asking such personal questions of our friends. So if you don’t even know where to start, here’s a tip. Instead of asking “how are you?” ask: “how are you feeling today,” or “how are you doing emotionally this week?” Each day is a new battle. So whether you’re approaching your friend for the first time, or checking in with them after knowing about their pain for a year, each day for a friend in need comes with new challenges and remembering that is essential.

Step 4: Be there, and stay.

It’s not about what you say, it’s really about what you do. Spend time in person with your friend in need. Hug them, cry with them, make them feel supported and loved. All of these actions will be deeply appreciated.

It’s also important to be there for a friend even after they have gotten “better.” Healing takes time; it’s never too late to see how someone is doing even if you haven’t reached out to them in a while.

So remember: talk to them, don’t just send a text, ask the right questions, be there, and stay. In college we are separated from our families, so our close friends are the only form of in-person love and support that we have. Let’s be there for each other, in the best way we can.

Cover Photo: Sabrina Kogut

Leave your additional tips for helping a friend in the comments down below.

About Nicole Kaplan

Nicole Kaplan draws inspiration from her semester spent studying in Amsterdam. This senior from Chicago loves laying in Audubon Park, reading a good book, and cooking her famous chicken fajitas.

One thought on “From Friend to Therapist: How to Step Up When A Friend Is Down

  1. Nicole – This is so great! I realize I’m “texting” you but if you were here I’d give you a hug. As a family member of a family in grief, and as a therapist, and as a person who has had painful times and felt alone, your words are so poignant. You’re a good friend and a good person! <3

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