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Supporting a friend while supporting yourself

Supporting a friend while supporting yourself

It is natural to want to support someone who is in distress. It may be useful to define what is causing you concern:

  • Have they talked about problems?
  • Are others concerned also?
  • Have they changed recently?

They may have changed:

  • in appearance (weight gain/loss; smiling less/manically; less kempt, etc)
  • n mood (quick to anger/irritability; sullen; low/hyper; miserable/over-excitable)
  • in level of engagement (more/less sociable/interested in themselves and others)
  • in patterns of behaviour (self sabotaging - over/under working/socialising; reduced self care (eating unhealthily; harming self in some way; substance misuse)

When supporting someone, here's some things to consider:

  • People in distress may appreciate support. However, be prepared that they may deny that anything's wrong, they may reject any offers of help, or they may genuinely wish to try and 'go through it' by themselves to strengthen their resilience.
  • However, if you are concerned, tell them. 'Own' your concerns, ie you may say "I notice that you don't seem yourself recently" (rather than "you have been acting strangely recently"); be prepared to offer specific examples (eg "yesterday I noticed you seemed more withdrawn than you usually are when we had lunch")
  • Some people find it easy and helpful to talk about problems, some may not want to ‘open up’ at all.
  • It is important to respect privacy, but don't be bound by keeping a trust/secret if you think the person may be an imminent or significant danger to themselves or others.
  • Be prepared to listen, carefully, gently, with your full attention, even if they repeat themselves.
  • Be present with them and talk with them without offering advice or trying to find a ‘solution’. Many people know what they 'ought' to do or not do (although sometimes clear thinking gets obscured when in distress) so just having a non-judgemental supportive listening ear can be very helpful.
  • Be willing to listen and offer supportive understanding - it is often as helpful as any direct advice.
  • Sometimes it is enough for people to have the opportunity to talk and they might start to feel better.
  • However, it is important to look out for yourself when involved in supporting someone else. Make sure you think carefully about how much you can hear without getting overwhelmed; consider how much time you are able and prepared to give to the support, without it becoming burdensome for you – it isn’t helpful for someone in distress to feel they are overwhelming their friends/supporters.
  • It is helpful to set workable boundaries - perhaps suggest you can talk for a certain time (eg 20 minutes); suggest checking in again at a certain time (eg"we can meet up again later inthe day, at 7pm for half an hour"), and schedule it in on a specific time/date.

Looking after your own mental well-being is essential – consider and set clear limits on how much time and energy you can give - being clear yet brief with your amount of support is better than giving lots of support then feeling overwhelmed and having to find ways to carefully and sensitively pull back from the level of giving.

Don't take responsibility for your friend's problems. It's not up to you to solve their difficulties.

You can also get support for yourself about your friend’s problem without mentioning their name - contact someone you can trust to talk it all through with. Do actively seek out support for yourself too if you feel it could be helpful - sometimes when we help and support others, it can re-stimulate difficulties of our own, so take extra care to look after yourself when you're involved in supporting others, consider professional counselling services for you too.

If you are seriously worried and need to alert someone else, try to get your friend’s consent, but in certain situations it is better to break confidentiality to ensure the best help can be sought for your friend (see below).

Remind your friend of the resources available, for example Wellbeing Support Services

The Karpman Triangle

This is a model of social interactions and conflict developed by Stephen Karpman in 1968. It's based on the idea that when it comes to relating to others, we can all at times get into patterns or roles of behaviour which, although they feel comfortable in some ways and allow us to get some of our (possibly unconscious) needs met, they are ultimately unhelpful and self-perpetuating. He defines three different roles, which form the points of a triangle and which work in interaction with each other.

Someone in the "victim" role struggles to believe in their own power and capacity to make changes in their circumstances. To avoid taking on that responsibility, they may depend on a "rescuer". A rescuer in turn has difficulty believing that their own needs are important and worthy of being met: instead they focus on others' needs, often at the expense of their own.

The third part of the triangle is made up by the "persecutor", who seeks to dominate and overpower others as a way of not having to admit to any part of them which might feel helpless or powerless.

These roles perpetuate each other, and it's possible too to switch between the roles: someone in the rescuer position for example may start to become persecutory, if their hard work in attempting to rescue doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

The way out of the triangle involves moving into different roles, with a different way of communicating which doesn't discount ourselves, or the other people in the triangle. This is sometimes known as the Empowerment or the Winner's Triangle.

If you recognise any of these roles being played out in your friendships and relationships, it may help to think about how you could change your style of communication. You can find more detail here:

Linda Graham - Triangle

Lynne Forrest - The faces of a victim

In a Crisis

If you are concerned about the risk to your friend’s personal safety, or that of others, you may need to act without their consent. In a crisis situation, ensuring your own safety and that of others is paramount. It is important to remain calm and to adopt a non-threatening approach, explaining in a straightforward way what you are doing. You may need to contact the emergency services (999) or, on campus, Security staff can assist. After a crisis, ensure you get support for yourself by talking the situation through. You may want to access the Counselling Service.

2 minute tip

Supporting Your Friends

  • It is natural to want to support a friend in distress, here are some things to consider:
  • Doing the right thing: comfort, be present, make it about them, be conscious about your body language and listen actively, leave them if they need space.
  • Say the right thing: ask open questions, let them talk about their own experiences,
  • Act: support them to access help and follow up with ongoing support

Here are some ways you can support your friends at Warwick

  • Reach out
  • Remain calm
  • Maintain contact
  • Encourage, empathise and don’t judge
  • Active Listening
  • Body Language
  • Open Questions
  • Distract with fun, make them laugh
  • Report or seek advice for any concerns, abuse or vulnerability

Remember to look after yourself, it is important to safeguard your own health and wellbeing by setting boundaries, understanding that while you can comfort friends and encourage them to access support and it is not your responsibility to fix things.

Useful resources

At the University of Warwick

  • Security on campus 22083
  • Nightline 024 7641 7668, or Internal ext 22199. 9pm – 9am. Term-time
  • Wellbeing Support Services You may wish to contact Wellbeing Support Services to access further support for you or your friend

Other Resources

Available from the University Library:

How to help someone who is suicidal . Book which includes straightforward advice and a list of further resources Hill and Gorman.

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