There are many signs a student can be in distress. Some warning signs include:
- Noticeable change in their personality or their actions
- They may seem easily agitated or overly sensitive to normal situations
- More withdrawn and isolated–no longer participating in activities, keeping to themselves, not leaving their room
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or despair
- Poor personal hygiene or self care
- Risky decision making
- Change in substance use patterns
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Change in eating habits or significant weight loss or gain
If you are worried about a friend because of a health or well-being concern, take the first step and check in with them. If this makes you nervous, you can consult with a mental health or medical provider on campus to learn how to approach your friend and the conversation. In general, here are some things to consider in approaching a peer with your concerns.
First, carefully choose a time and place. You want your friend to feel comfortable to make sure it is either a neutral space or one where they feel at home. Choosing a time that does not interfere with class time or homework time may also be beneficial so that you don’t stress your friend out by keeping them from their studies. Finally, if possible, choose a time when your friend or peer is not under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
If your other friends are also concerned, try electing one person to check in, or keeping the check-in conversation short so your friend doesn’t feel ganged up on. You may be talking about a sensitive experience or feeling, and you don’t want your friend to feel defensive because there are too many people there.
Be supportive and non-judgmental. Say things like “I am here for you” and avoid accusatory “you are doing _______” sentences. Those can make someone feel defensive and shut down. Remember, you do not need to fix the situation, so just focus on listening and asking how you can help.
Try not to give advice or share too much about how you have handled a situation. This can backfire and unintentionally make a friend feel worse or create a “one up” cycle where you are escalating their feelings rather than helping.
Offer support by sharing resources and see how your friend feels about seeking care. If they are nervous, see how you can help them take the first step. Say something like “what can I do to make it easier for you?” You can also offer to walk with them to make an appointment or sit with them when they make a call.
Starting the conversation is often the biggest hurdle. Below are a few things you can say:
- I noticed you haven’t been yourself lately. How are you?
- I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you doing?
- Are you all right? You haven’t seemed like yourself lately.
- I just want you to know I am here for you if you need to talk.
- I’m worried about you. Is everything all right?
Sometimes, you can check in with a friend and they are not ready to talk. Don’t push it. If you are met with resistance, just say something like, “I am here for you when you are ready.” Confronting a peer about a sensitive or concerning topic can make them feel defensive, especially if they are not thinking about change. Just know that checking in is a success itself. They will know you are a supportive friend and seek you out when they are ready to talk.
Finally, it can be stressful to see a friend or peer struggling. Make sure you take care of yourself. If what your friend shares with you is particularly heavy or triggering, you can always make an appointment to debrief with a mental health provider.