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How to Help a Friend

Deciding to approach a friend you’re concerned about can be scary and confusing. Approaching someone you care about means that you have the courage to let your friend know what you have seen and heard, that you are concerned about him or her, and that you are willing to help. Approaching a friend with your concerns does not equal "attack." It doesn’t require judging, blaming or forcing the person to take action. Below are some things for you to consider before you talk to your friend.

Choose a Suitable Time
Pick a time when you both have time to talk at length and aren’t rushed. Choose a place that is quiet, private and where no one will interrupt you. Sometimes gathering a small group of mutually trusting friends is a good strategy to use in approaching someone. It can make it harder for the person to deny things if there is more than one person expressing objective observations and concerns.

Plan a Straightforward Message
Potentially anxiety-provoking messages need to be simple and concrete in order to be understood. Identify what your message will be, and stick to it.

Be Honest and Specific
Begin by explaining why you want to have a serious talk with your friend and what you hope will happen...and what you hope doesn't happen. Example: "I am really worried about your drinking and I hope you won't just blow me off or think I am just putting you down. I don't want to wreck our friendship."

It is important that you describe your observations in a non-judgmental way and express concern about what you’ve noticed. Example: "Since last Friday night you have come back to our room really drunk four times, twice you said you drove home drunk and last night you threw-up all over our floor."

Express how you feel about what you’ve observed. Example: "I am really worried about you. I am scared to talk to you in a serious way because I think you don't believe you have a problem...and bringing it up might just make you upset."

Listen Actively
Give your friend a chance to talk about how they’re feeling and to respond to what you’ve said. Listen actively to what your friend says. Listening "actively" does not require that you necessarily agree or disagree with your friend. The important part is that you accurately hear what your friend is saying so he or she feels heard and understood. One way to communicate that you are listening and understand is to paraphrase what your friend says, from their point of view. For example, you might say "I hear you saying that your dad drinks a lot more than you do, and that your drinking does not seem like a big deal. But I really wonder what will happen if you don’t make any changes. What do you think?"

Give suggestions for seeking professional help, if you believe this is appropriate. Example: "I really wish you would go talk to a counselor about your drinking...see if you do have a problem. You could either talk with a counselor at Center for Behavioral Health and Accessibility (CDS) or Substance Awareness Prevention and Education (SAPE)... whoever you would be most comfortable with. I'll go with you if you want."

Inform your friend about where to find services, how to make an appointment, service fees, and emphasize that the services are strictly confidential. You may want to offer your friend your telephone to make an appointment right there in front of you, or suggest that you go with him or her.

Whether your friend agrees to seek help or not, check in with him or her again about how he/she is doing. If your friend didn’t seek help, persistently but gently again encourage him/her again to do so. Following-up with your friend sends the message that you believe their problem is important enough for them to follow-up on as well.

Take Care of Yourself
Your friend may respond positively to your willingness to approach him or her and may actively seek help. However, your friend may also respond by promising to seek help and not doing so, denying he/she has a problem, or becoming frustrated or angry with you. Your friend may need time to digest your confrontation. A response of anger by your friend should not be viewed as a lack of appreciation or motivation, but as a sign of their anxiety. However, this can be very upsetting for those who tried to help. If your friend resists seeking help, DO NOT blame yourself; this doesn’t mean you did anything wrong or incorrectly. As adults, people do have the right to refuse help. You may want to consult with SAPE or a CDS counselor yourself to get assistance with your own feelings about this.

Other Things to Consider
The key to all helping is listening, which can be more difficult than it might appear. Listening means that you consider your friend’s concerns from his or her point of view. You aren’t listening well if you are busy trying to think of what to say next or giving advice. Although advice is intended to help your friend feel better, it is often unhelpful, especially when it’s given before your friend has had the opportunity to talk about his or her problems and to fully express her or his feelings.

Effective Listening
Listening may seem passive, like you aren’t doing anything helpful. However, effective listening requires that you communicate your attentiveness to your friend, meaning you look directly at him/her, ask questions to clarify things you don’t understand, summarize what he/she said to be sure you and they know that you understand, and ask questions to help them express their thoughts and feelings. If your friend rejects what you have to say, or argues with you, ask yourself if you are listening carefully. You may have unknowingly slipped into advice-giving mode or begun talking about your own or other people’s problems rather than the ones your friend is experiencing.

Help your friend express his/her feelings. The second most important part of helping is creating an atmosphere in which your friend can express feelings of sadness, frustration, anger or despair. When people we care about experience discomfort, our first reaction is often to do or say something to make them feel better. Unfortunately, this can cut off their feelings. If we move too quickly to do this, people may feel like their feelings should be held back because the feelings are too "bad." Questions like, "How did you feel about what happened?" can help your friend get in touch with feelings. Just sitting with your friend while they express their various feelings about what is going on can be very helpful. Your understanding and supportive presence while they are sorting out their various thoughts and feelings is often more important and effective than any advice you may give to try to solve their problem.

For serious situations, when you need some extra consultation about your friend, contact SAPE at the CDS in Dearmont B1, at 986.6191, Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. You can also email at
***Adapted from The Good Feeling Handbook, copyright 1989 by David D. Burns, M.D. and Indiana University Health Center


Phone: 573.986.6191
Fax: 573.986.6031

Substance Awareness Prevention and Education
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Cape Girardeau, Missouri 63701