5 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Friends often need extra support during times of crisis – such as experiencing a death in the family, navigating divorce, or struggling with mental health issues.
While it’s difficult to know what to say and do, the best place to start is by reaching out and offering support.
Different situations may require different forms of support.
While you probably can’t fix the issue, you can help in small ways: offer support, organise regular catch ups, ask questions, share your own experiences, and offer practical guidance when needed.
When a friend is going through a hard time (think: a death in the family, navigating divorce, facing unemployment, or struggling with mental health) you may be unsure how to support them. What should you say? What should you do? Do they need space? Tough love? Should you force them to talk about it? Try to distract them? Make them laugh? Just sit with them in silence?
They really should teach this stuff in school!
The truth is, every person and situation is different. There’s no one guaranteed way to support your friend when they’re struggling. But one thing’s for sure – they need you right now. Friendships can pull us through life’s biggest struggles – whether it’s a global pandemic or losing a job.
So let’s look at how you can support your friends when they’re facing a crisis.
People react to crises in different ways. Some guys withdraw. Some reach out for help. Some throw themselves into work to try and keep their mind off things (often at the risk of burning out). Others feel completely unmotivated to do anything. And some even engage in behaviours like increased drinking and drug use.
Whether your friend seems to want your help or not, being there for them is crucial. Here are some tips on how to do that.
When something terrible has happened to a friend of yours, you may not know how to even reach out to offer your support. This can lead many of us to stay silent when our friends really need us. Try to push past that fear of doing or saying the wrong thing.
Contact could be as simple as a text message, a voice memo or a sticky note left on their front door saying something like “I’m here whenever you need me”. You could even ask your friend outright how they'd like to be contacted. For example, you could ask if they’re up for a visit or if they’d prefer a phone call.
Guys sometimes brush off feelings and emotions, thinking they’re a sign of ‘weakness’ or evidence that they don’t have their sh*t together. (Sidenote: Who does?) If your friend seems to be repressing their feelings or ‘laughing things off’, it’s good to ask deeper questions to try and encourage them to open up. For example, you may ask how their partner or kids are coping, and how they’re coping with supporting the family.
When a friend is struggling, know that you don’t need to ‘fix’ it for them. The very act of giving them your time and attention can be powerful. Find space for them, put your phone on silent, and try to connect. It can help to offer relatable stories or share your own personal struggles. Make sure to ask plenty of questions so they get a chance to speak too.
Sometimes you don’t need to say much at all. “I’m here for you”, for example, is a simple way to show your support. You can acknowledge and validate their feelings of sadness by saying things like, “I know this is such a hard time for you”.
Try to understand what your friend is experiencing, but don’t be afraid to ask about other parts of life too. For example, if they’re going through a separation you could ask them about work or their hobbies and encourage them to focus on other areas of life. (Bonus points if you can also slip in a well-placed joke or two and make them smile.)
It can also be useful to ask your friend how they think you can help. Some guys may not know. But others might be able to identify ways you could step in and offer practical support (i.e. by delivering some groceries, walking the dog, or helping them take their mind off things).
Different situations may call for a different approach. Here are some thoughts on how to support your friend through a crisis.
Grief is an awful experience, and it can take a long time to feel ‘normal’ again after losing a loved one. Everyone experiences different feelings, behaviours, and mourning periods. You can help by:
Separation is an emotionally charged experience. It can make men feel guilty, angry, overwhelmed, depressed or any other range of emotions. You can be a calming, consistent presence throughout the process. Help your friend by:
Worried that your friend could be depressed? Look out for signs such as:
The best way to help a friend experiencing depression because of a crisis is to direct them towards professional support. But in the meantime, you can encourage them to take care of themselves and slow down to avoid burnout. Be there for them to talk to and organise regular catch-ups so they feel supported.
Anxiety can exhibit itself as excessive worrying, obsessive thoughts, panic attacks, and other physical symptoms. While your friend’s worries may seem strange or insignificant to you, remember that it’s very real for them. And this may ramp up during periods of high stress – like becoming a new parent for example.
You can help a friend with anxiety by encouraging them to speak to a doctor or therapist, while offering realistic perspectives on the situation.
One of the best ways to support a friend who’s going through a crisis is to check in on them regularly. Set specific dates and times to catch up, and make sure to follow through.
If your friend struggles to open up and discuss their feelings, open-ended questions are a good way to help them get started. For example, “what’s home life looking like for you at the moment?” is a good way to get them talking about their routine and family life.
Discussing some of your own struggles can be a good way to encourage your friend to do the same. It demonstrates that we’re not all perfect, and it’s okay to get real.
As much as you don’t need to solve your friend’s problems or take away their pain for them (you’d have to be some sort of wizard to do that), sometimes it can be helpful to offer practical tips. For example, you could give your friend the number of a therapist you’ve heard good things about. Or offer some suggestions that worked for you, when you were struggling.
Crises can throw people’s world into turmoil. The best way you can help is by being a constant, reassuring force in your friend’s life right now. Just be sure to look after yourself as well – particularly if the crisis affects you.