Counseling Center

How to Help a Friend

If you are reading this, chances are you're concerned about someone in your life. You may feel afraid, angry, and/or helpless. These feelings are natural, but know that you're doing the right thing by looking for ways to help! Sometimes it is difficult to know what will be helpful. The following is designed to give you some ideas about what to do.

Stress or Crisis?


In most instances the problems people experience are not emergency situations. Everyone feels stress at times. However, stress may be of concern if you observe the any of the following:

  • Drop in academic performance
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use
  • Depressed or lethargic mood
  • Hyperactivity and/or rapid speech
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Self-injury (i.e., cutting, scratching)
  • Unusual or exaggerated emotional response to events

What to do:
If you choose to approach the person you are concerned about or if that person seeks you out, here are some suggestions:

Talk in private when both of you have time and are not preoccupied. Give your undivided attention. It is possible that just a few minutes of listening may be enough to help her/him feel comfortable about what to do next.

Be direct and non-judgmental. In a supportive, and gentle, but straightforward way, share what you have observed and what your concerns are. For example, say something like: "I've noticed you've been avoiding your friends lately and you have been oversleeping and missing class. I'm really concerned and would like to talk about this."

Listen sensitively. Listen to thoughts and feelings in a sensitive way. Communicate understanding by paraphrasing what you've been told. Try to include both the content and feelings. For example, "It sounds like you miss your family and are really feeling alone." Remember to let the student talk and be prepared for the possibility of strong feelings/reactions from the person (i.e. denial, anger, confusion).

Refer. Toward the end of the discussion, point out that help is available and seeking help is a sign of strength. If the person is a Hamilton student, you can refer them to the Counseling Center.

Follow up. Check with your friend later to find out how he or she is doing. Provide support or encouragement as appropriate.


A crisis is a situation in which a person's usual coping style is no longer working. As emotions intensify, coping becomes less effective, until the person may become disoriented, non-functional, or attempt harm. If your friend is in a serious mental health crisis, you might see or hear the following:

  • Suicidal statements or suicide attempts
  • Homicidal threats, written or verbal, or attempted homicide or assault
  • Destruction of property or other criminal acts
  • Extreme panic reactions
  • Inability to communicate (e.g., garbled or slurred speech, disjointed thoughts)
  • Loss of contact with reality (e.g., seeing or hearing things that aren't there, expressing beliefs or actions at odds with reality)
  • Highly disruptive behavior (e.g., hostility, aggression, violence)

What to do:

If you believe there may be an imminent danger of harm to her/himself or someone else, as evidenced by several of these crisis symptoms, immediately call Campus Safety at x4000.

If you need help in assessing the situation, call the Counseling Center at x4340 between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. You may also consider walking the student to the Counseling Center during these hours since this is often an excellent way of showing support. After 5 p.m. and on weekends you contact Campus Security (x4000) and ask the dispatcher to page the counselor-on-call.


Hearing about someone else's struggles can be difficult and can leave you feeling emotionally drained. Your well-being is just as important as your friend's. The following may be helpful for you as you deal with your friend:

Recognize the limits of your own power/responsibility

You do not have the power to:

  • Make your friend change
  • Control how your friend will respond

You do have the power to:

  • Be genuine and supportive
  • Be concerned about your friend
  • Determine how to express your caring and concern
  • Be honest with yourself about the amount of time and effort you can expend in helping your friend
  • Get support yourself
  • Be aware of your own needs and find ways of meeting them, e.g., seeking people who can give you emotional support
  • Maintain healthy boundaries

Remember: You don't need to do it alone. Use the staff at the Dean's Office (x4020), the Chaplain's office (x4856), or the Counseling Center (x4340) when you need information about how to handle a situation. And, realize the importance of taking care of your own needs.

Thank you to the Hobart/William Smith Counseling Center for the text on this page.