How to Help a Friend in Distress

Helping a friend through a tough time can be really difficult. Whether your friend has a mental health difficulty or is simply going through stressful circumstances in college, chances are your friend will turn to you for support and help. Being as informed as possible about these issues is an important first step.

Signs and Symptoms of Distress

Be aware of real trouble signs. If any one of these lasts only a short time, that can be normal. But if you know a friend with several of these problems lasting more than a couple of weeks, he or she may be nearing a crisis. Your friend needs help! The warning signs can include:

  • complaining of sadness or crying more often
  • being irritable on most days or having unexpected angry outbursts
  • losing interest or pleasure in most activities
  • avoiding friends, activities, school, social events
  • escaping by daydreaming or sleeping all the time
  • experiencing sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • feeling fatigued or exhausted
  • eating much less or more than normal or having other changes in appetite
  • bingeing, purging, excessive dieting or other problematic eating behaviors
  • worrying or being unable to think of anything but the problem
  • experiencing declining grades or other academic problems
  • talking like there is no hope, even in the future
  • feeling worthless or experiencing excessive guilt
  • increasing use of alcohol and/or drugs
  • exhibiting severe behavior change, such as a quiet person becoming wild or active
  • showing greatly increased energy, decreased need for sleep, euphoria, or manic behavior
  • thinking or talking about death or dying

There are other signals that should be taken particularly seriously because they are Suicide Danger Signals:

  • experiencing severe depression and hopelessness
  • making verbal or written threats (including email) of harm to self or others
  • preparing for death (giving away prized possessions, saying goodbye)
  • exhibiting self-injurious or self-destructive behaviors
  • having a past history of suicidal threats or attempts

Being a Helping Friend

It is important to remember that you cannot be responsible for other people’s actions when they are stressed, depressed, or suicidal. Whether they are crying out for help or suffering silently in despair – only they can help themselves. What you can do is be the most caring and responsible friend possible during the hard times. This means listening to their concerns, supporting them, and helping them get professional help.


If you decide to help then do it with H.E.A.R.T.
  • Stop what you’re doing and really listen to what your friend is saying. Sometimes just letting people vent and talk about their feelings helps them to feel better.

  • Acknowledge what you have heard and let your friend know you understand. Express concern and interest. Repeat back the essence of what your friend has said. Reflect feelings and summarize your friend’s concerns. Avoid criticizing or sounding judgmental. Remember, even if the problem does not seem real to you, it may be very important to your friend.

  • Ask your friend, “What have you thought about doing?” What are his or her options? Does your friend have the resources (skills, information, support, training, money, etc.) needed to handle the problem? Discuss the pros and cons of different courses of action. Don’t expect to have all the answers to solve your friend’s problem.

  • Be aware of signs and symptoms that indicate your friend needs professional help. Be honest about your concerns. Do not agree to be secretive about his or her problem. Help your friend find appropriate help. Offer to go with him or her to talk with a professional.

  • Do not ignore remarks about suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. When people are suicidal they need immediate help. Seek professional assistance.

How to Make a Referral to Counseling and Psychological Services

  1. If your friend is a Fairleigh Dickinson University student, suggest he or she call or come in to make an appointment. Give the phone number (973-443-8504) and location (Wellness Center at Danforth Road entrance to the campus) of our office. Our services are free and confidential.
  2. Call Counseling and Psychological Services while you are with your friend. Let your friend make the appointment. Give him or her paper and pen to write down the appointment information (date, time, location, and counselor’s name).
  3. Just walk your friend over to Counseling and Psychological Services. Some students feel more comfortable making an appointment or attending a first counseling session when accompanied by a friend.
  4. If you are concerned about your friend but are uncertain about the appropriateness of a referral, feel free to consult with one of our counselors. Call or make an appointment.
  5. If your friend is not a Fairleigh Dickinson University student, speak with one of our counselors for off-campus referral information.

Psychological Emergencies

Remember, never ignore remarks about suicide. When people are suicidal, they need immediate help. Do not promise to keep secret someone’s intention to kill herself or himself. On campus call Public Safety (973-443-8888). The Public Safety dispatcher will contact Student Counseling and Psychological Services staff. Off campus call 911 or your local Psychiatric Emergency Screening Program.