How to help a friend who’s not okay

Two hands holding paper heart

Having the right tools and information to help someone struggling with their mental health can make a big difference to their overall wellbeing.

We spoke with Caroline Knowles, Outreach Support Coordinator at Murdoch University, about how to identify the signs of someone struggling, what you can do to help, and the support services available at Murdoch.

What are the signs someone is not okay?

Going through emotional periods of change is a normal part of life, but if you notice prolonged periods of sadness, anger, frustration, or anxiety in a friend, it may be a sign they are struggling with their mental health.

Caroline notes you may notice changes in behaviour, such as:

  • Your friend not leaving their house for long periods of time
  • Disengaging in their normal hobbies
  • Falling behind on assignments
  • Sleeping too much or not enough

Emotional changes such as frequent and increased outbursts of anger, feeling sad, or a lack of motivation and hope are also other common signs someone may be struggling.

What can you do to help someone who doesn’t seem okay?

Start a conversation

Often, the best way to begin helping someone who is struggling is to start a conversation. Find a space where you are both comfortable to keep the situation as informal and relaxed as possible with a friendly, calm approach. If you’re not sure what to say, try starting with “How are you going?” or “What’s been happening?”.

You could also start by mentioning a particular behavioural or emotional change you may have noticed in your friend, for example, ‘R U OK?’ suggests something like: “I know you’ve had trouble sleeping and concentrating lately. Can we talk about that?” Caroline suggests adding to this by asking open-ended questions after referencing these specific changes, such as “You seem a little quieter than usual. How are you?”.

Listen without judgement

When listening to your friend’s response, use non-verbal cues such as nodding, maintaining appropriate eye contact, listening without interrupting, and keeping open body language (such keeping your arms uncrossed), Caroline suggests.

Repeating what you’ve heard using your own words shows your friend that you are listening and have understood them. If your friend is not sure how to respond, it is also okay to sit with silence. Give your friend time to think about their response and be patient.

Additionally, it’s important to keep the focus on your friend without trying to make their experience relevant to you: “Don’t assume you know how they feel and try to relate to them in a way that draws all the focus back to you,” Caroline says.

Always approach these situations with sensitivity and kindness. It’s important not to pass judgement on their experiences, interrupt their response, or rush the conversation. For more help on how to start the conversation, check out R U OK?’s ‘Tips on how to ask’.

Seek help if needed

Once you’ve started a conversation and listened to what your friend has to say, it can be difficult to know what to say or do next – especially if they confide in you they are struggling with their mental health.

‘There’s more to say after R U OK?’ guide from contains practical tools and information on how to manage the next steps of the conversation to help your friend find the support they need, and how to respond to emotional reactions during a conversation such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. Most notably, it’s important to be prepared for the conversation, acknowledge any potential emotional reactions, and allow your friend to express what they are feeling in a safe environment.

Where to find support if you need it

If your friend is open to receiving help and support, there are a number of on-campus support services available, including:

  • Murdoch University Counselling Service; Building 440. Ph: 9360 1227
  • Caladenia Counselling; Building 490. Ph: 9360 7848
  • Outreach Support Coordinator; Building 418. Ph: 9360 2293
  • Access and Inclusion; Building ECL.1.015. Ph: 9360 6084
  • myAdvice Locations; East, West, or Library location. Ph: 1300 687 3624

You can also contact external services such a Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

What if someone doesn’t want your help?

If you sense resistance or hesitation when help is offered, avoid criticising them, says Caroline. Gently enquire as to why they are unwilling to talk to you, but never push them into conversation if they are not ready. Instead, reassure them that you are there for them when they are ready to talk. ‘R U OK?’ suggests offering reassurance by saying something such as: “It’s okay that you don’t want to talk about it but please call me when you’re ready to chat,” or “Is there someone else you’d rather talk to?”.

They might prefer to speak to someone else, and that is okay too. You can still support them by helping them find suitable support services from a professional, or friend or family member they would feel comfortable confiding in.

Not sure who to contact? Get in touch with Murdoch University Counselling Services on 9360 1227.

Posted on:

9 Sep 2020

Share this article:

Show your support

Clap to show your support for the article