The people we meet and the friends we make while at university play an important role in shaping our lives. They are the people who are there when we are at our best, when we may not be doing so great, and all those times in between. If they're looking out for us, who is looking out for them, and how do we help those we care about? We all experience moments of difficulty in our lives in which we may feel overwhelmed. This section is about learning how to be there for your friends and acquaintances.
POTENTIAL WARNING SIGNS
The first step is to be able to recognize the signs that someone could be going through a tough time:
- Dramatic positive or negative changes in energy level
- Worrisome changes in hygiene or personal appearance
- Significant changes in appetite or weight
- Signs of alcohol or drug use (e.g. bloodshot eyes)
- Constant worry or anxiety
- Unprovoked anger or general irritability
- Persistent sadness or frequent tearfulness
- Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Disengaging or isolating themselves from commitments
Noticing that a friend might need someone to talk to and actually talking to them are quite different things! Actually working up the courage to talk to a friend in need can sometimes be daunting. However, there are a variety of strategies that can help you reach out to a friend in need.
Never underestimate the power of listening! Often people in various stages of distress just want someone to listen to them, and not to necessarily try to solve all of their 'problems.' However, it is important to remember that not all forms of listening are the same! In particular, listening is best when it is done in a thoughtful and engaged manner and this style is sometimes called active listening. Active listening provides a non-judgmental space in which to communicate with another person while also showing the other person that you understand what they are saying, and that you accept how they are feeling (Oliver & Margolin, 2009; Goss, Rossi, & Moretti, 2011). The four stages of active listening are repetition, paraphrasing, reflection, and validation.
REPEATING WHAT THE OTHER PERSON SAID TO YOU, OFTEN IN THE FORM OF A QUESTION
Person A: "I had a really bad day today!"
Person B: "You had a bad day? Tell me more about it."
REPHRASING, IN YOUR OWN WORDS, WHAT THE OTHER PERSON JUST TOLD YOU
Person A: "I have so many assignments due next week and I don't know how I will ever get them finished in time!"
Person B: "It sounds like you have a lot to do for next week."
CLARIFYING THE UNDERLYING EMOTIONS OF WHAT THE PERSON JUST SAID AND CHECKING IN WITH THEM TO MAKE SURE THAT YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY ARE SAYING
Person A: "Every day it just seems like I have more and more work to do! I don't know how I'll get everything done before the end of the semester."
Person B: "It is probably very stressful for you with everything you have to do."
ACKNOWLEDGING AND ACCEPTING WHAT EMOTIONAL STATE THE PERSON IS IN AND LETTING THEM KNOW THAT YOU ARE WILLING TO LISTEN FURTHER
Person A: "If I don't get a break sometime soon, I don't think I'll be able to keep up with my classes. Sometimes I just feel like dropping out would make my life so much easier."
Person B: "With all the work you have to do, it is understandable that you feel overwhelmed and that you would like for it to stop. How do you think dropping out would make your life easier?"
Effective active listening requires that you be able to weave together these various elements into a single conversation. Like all skills, active listening can be improved with practice. But ultimately, to be effective at active listening, you need to embody the underlying values and not just go through the motions. Those values are curiosity in what the other person is saying, an attitude of acceptance towards the other person's feelings, and the patience to let the person develop their point of view without immediately rushing into problem solving.
REFER YOUR FRIEND
You may reach a point where you no longer feel like you are able to handle the situation or that your friend may benefit from seeking professional care. This is perfectly normal and it is important to remember that there are many services at McGill, both professional-based and student-run, who are ready to help McGill students experiencing psychological difficulties.
This first step in knowing where to refer someone is to learn about the resources that are offered to you by the university. For a list of some common resources utilized by students, please click here. Remember that when referring your friend, it is important to validate them and the courage it takes to seek help.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Sometimes, you may feel that your friend is in danger or is a danger to others. Trust your gut and know your limits! If you feel unsafe at any time make sure to call 911 or McGill Security (Downtown Campus: 514-398-3000, Macdonald Campus: 514-398-7777) to assist you or your friend. It is also important that you remember to seek support for yourself! Please consult our website for further information if you yourself are considering seeking help.
Goss, C., Rossi, A., & Moretti F. (2011). Assessment stage: data gathering and structuring the interview. In Communication in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (ed. M. Rimondini). Springer: New York
Oliver, P. H., & Margolin, G. (2009). Communication/problem-solving skills training. In W. O'Donohue & J. E. Fisher (Eds.) General Principles and empirically supported techniques of cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 199-206). New York: Wiley.