How to support a friend through mental health struggles at university

How to support a friend through mental health struggles at university

Know someone having a tough time at university? Here's what you can do to show you care

The very moment my housemates and I processed that one of our closest friends had contemplated ending their life, I phoned up my mother – who happens to be a therapist – and released every ounce of sheer panic and pain I was feeling. This helped – but I couldn’t shake off this overwhelming sense of guilt, having spent practically every single day with this person yet being blissfully unaware of it all.

I knew of my friend’s ongoing battle with depression and anxiety, it was a topic that we spoke frequently and openly about. But when I heard the word “suicidal”, I struggled to find the right words to say. After getting in touch with my friend’s family and our university, I did two things: cooked her one of her favorite meals and slid a hand-written letter through her door letting her know I was there when she needed me. The days that followed consisted of my friends and I anxiously wanting to help as much as possible without seeming overbearing. Distressing was an understatement.

We were amid exam season, which would have been near impossible to get through had we not checked regularly on one another and reached out to our loved ones. Fortunately, my friend got immediate professional help from the counselling services at university and through admirable strength, managed to continue with her education and come out on the other side even stronger.

But there is nothing remarkable about my story. Research by IPPR found that over the past five years alone, 94 per cent of universities have experienced a sharp increase in the number of people trying to access support services, with some institutions noticing a threefold rise. For a large majority of students, university is a life-changing experience. For a considerable minority, especially those who have pre-existing mental health conditions, the transition into higher education can be tough to deal with. For those who develop these difficulties during their time at university, accessing the appropriate support in a timely fashion can be complex and often unlikely.

Friendship can play a key role in helping someone live with or recover from a mental health related illness. What’s important is what you – as a friend – choose to do next.

Here, then, are the top 7 tips I’ve taken away from my own experience:

One: Listen
Allow the person to confide openly without hearing advice or a dismissal of their thoughts and feelings. If they choose to share some personal information with you, do not share this with others, except if you feel they are putting themselves in danger.

Two: Offer to be available for support
Seeking help can be scary. Offer reassurance by letting them know that they aren’t alone, and that you are there to help. Maggie Curran, who runs the counselling practice Village Counselling, advocates the importance of maintaining communication throughout. “Send a text. Leave a voicemail. Write them a letter. Anything – and just listen. Keeping that connection is so important. And remember, you may be the first person they speak to about how they are feeling, so be gentle.”

Three: Ask if they are getting the treatment they want and need
If they aren’t, offer to find out about some available resources. If they are, go to appointments with them if they want you to – even just sitting in the waiting room can bring them reassurance.

Four: Offer any practical support that you can
This could include picking up their food shopping, offering them a lift or cooking them dinner when they’re having a bad day. Often, a person struggling with their mental health can find basic day-to-day tasks a challenge – extending a helping hand could make all the difference.


Five: Educate yourself
Look at websites such as Mind or Student Minds to learn more about the illness they are experiencing. Whatever their diagnosis is, educating yourself more about it will help you be more supportive and in touch with the situation.

Six: Keep inviting them to social gatherings
Even if your friend seems hesitant about joining in with social events, it’s important to keep inviting them along. Feeling included is important and supporting your friend isn’t just about worrying – it's about spending time together and still doing things you enjoy.

Seven: Look after yourself
When supporting someone, it’s vital that you look after yourself too. It can be emotionally draining constantly worrying about someone else, so find a way of ensuring you are also supported. Make time for your relationships with family and friends and keep up with your usual routine. Kerry Rolls, the Wellbeing Coordinator at Bournemouth University, believes in the importance of knowing when to step back. “Be there, but know your limits”.


  • Charleigh Kirby studies Communication & Media at Bournemouth University, and can be found at your nearby coffee shop immersed in a Margaret Atwood novel.