How to Follow Your Instincts When You’re Worried About a Friend
You’ve recently noticed some signs that your friend might be struggling emotionally. Maybe you’ve seen them post sad or angry messages on social media. Maybe you’ve noticed that they’ve been skipping class or frequently calling out sick for work. Maybe you’ve heard them say things like, “I’m a failure” or “I wish I could just not wake up.” Research shows¹ that a significant number of people who are struggling will not actively reach out for help, which makes trusting your instincts and starting a conversation with them all the more important.
You know your friend, and when you notice signs that make you think that your friend is struggling, your gut may tell you that they need help. In moments like these it’s important to follow your instincts, even if you aren’t totally sure they are right on. The best way to do this is to start an honest conversation with your friend. If what you notice is really worrisome and feels overwhelming or if you’re really uncomfortable starting a conversation with your friend, then find someone you trust to talk to you—ideally an adult who has experience or comfort talking about hard things.
Am I Overreacting or Should I Trust My Gut?
Even when your gut tells you something is off, you might think of a lot of reasons not to act on your instincts. Maybe you’re worried that you’ve misread the situation, or that you’re overreacting. Maybe you tell yourself this is just a temporary change in behavior, or that your friend is just having a bad day. Maybe you’re worried your friend will react badly—in fact, maybe they’ve ignored other people’s concerns.
You might feel conflicted: One voice in your head is like an alarm going off, telling you that something’s wrong while another voice is saying, “Just wait and see” or “They’ll be mad at you.” So how do you learn to trust your instincts and pay attention to your inner alarm?
Checking In Isn’t the Same as Prying
You’re not overstepping or prying simply by expressing your concern—in fact, outreach from friends is very effective. Research shows² that of all the people in their life, a person who’s struggling is most likely to talk openly with a friend.
When you start a conversation with a friend who you think is struggling, remember not to judge or to diagnose them. Maybe your instincts are telling you, “It looks like she’s struggling with an eating disorder” or “He sounds like he’s depressed.” It is important to not diagnose the problem or prescribe potential solutions. Your primary goal is to be a support for a friend in need.
When you check in with your friend, share what you’ve noticed and invite them to be open about what’s going on. While you want to avoid diagnosis-like language, it can help to share specific things you have noticed, like “I notice that you rarely eat much when we are together at a restaurant” or “I notice that you seem sad a lot when we talk.” You can follow that up with inviting them to share what is happening for them by saying something like, “I respect how hard it can be to talk about what is going on, but I care and want to understand and support you.” If they share, try to listen for the feelings they are sharing along with the words.It may take more than one conversation for them to be comfortable enough to share how they’re feeling, so keep checking in.
While friends are often the first one to see that a peer is struggling, there are times when our friends need support outside our friend group. Sometimes the most helpful thing a friend can do—besides listening, and staying connected, and showing they care—is to encourage their struggling friend to seek help from someone experienced. If your friend acknowledges that they are struggling, you can offer to help them find the extra support they need.
If your friend is not open to talking and you continue to observe worrisome signs, keep the door to communication open and reach out to others for help if you become increasingly concerned. If you need help trusting your instincts and checking in with your friend, check out our content on helping a friend [Link to: Subtopic: Friendships], or reach out to resources like Crisis Text Line (Text START to 741-741) to get confidential advice from a trained counselor.
Telling Someone Else About Your Concerns Isn’t the Same as Gossiping
Sometimes when we are concerned about a friend, it helps to check out what we are noticing with other people who know our friend. It is understandable that we are careful about talking with others about sensitive things going on with a friend — we don’t want to seem like we’re gossiping or spreading rumors. But expressing your concern genuinely, kindly, and without judgement is not the same as gossiping, especially if you are not sure whether what is happening with your friend is something to worry about or if you are unsure about how to best help.
When to Talk to Shared Friends
There are times when it can help to talk to others in your shared friend group who you know truly care about your friend, and who may have noticed what you’ve noticed. In these cases, it’s helpful to have limited, respectful conversations with these mutual friends about what you’ve noticed and how you can best support your friend. It’s not helpful to add speculation about what could be going on or about what might happen.
Remember to keep these conversations between a small number of other friends who you’re confident have your friend’s best interest at heart. Involving lots of other friends—or only turning to friends when your friend could benefit from professional support—can lead to confusing misinformation, heightened emotions, or drama that can make the situation worse.
When to Talk to Adults You Trust
Research shows ³ that while friends are really important in providing short term support, they are most often not in a good position to provide the kind of deep support someone needs to really improve. If you and your friend are teenagers, then the best person to talk to about helping your struggling friend will be an adult in your life who you can trust—such as a parent, teacher, counselor or other trusted adult.
Turning to adults who share your concerns or are experienced in helping teenagers through difficult situations, like a school counselor, can be helpful in getting your friend connected to helpful resources and, if needed, professional support.
Remember, if you believe there is an immediate threat that your friend might harm themselves or someone else, call 9-1-1.
Trust Your Instincts About How You Feel, Too
Just as you should trust your internal voice when it comes to your friend’s mental health and well-being, you should trust your instincts if you start to feel that you’re struggling. Caring for friends and loved ones can be taxing on your own mental health—especially if you feel like a lone support, or if the challenges your friend is facing feel overwhelming or trigger your own struggles. While talking to someone who has a shared experience with you can be really comforting, it can also bring up unresolved memories or associations, or lead to feeling distressed. You’re not a failure if you can’t handle everything on your own. If you feel like you need your own support, don’t be afraid to reach out.
¹ Gulliver A, Griffiths K, Christensen H. Perceived barriers and facilitators to mental health help-seeking in young people: a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry. 2010;12:81.
² Hom, M. A., Stanley, I. H., & Joiner Jr, T. E. (2015). Evaluating factors and interventions that influence help-seeking and mental health service utilization among suicidal individuals: A review of the literature. Clinical psychology review, 40, 28-39.
³ Whitlock, J., Muehlenkamp, J., Eckenrode, J., Purington, A., Barrera, P., Baral-Abrams, G., Kress, V., Grace Martin, K, Smith, E., (2013). Non-suicidal self-injury as a gateway to suicide in adolescents and young adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(4): 486-492.