When starting university, it often means moving away from home to a whole new environment and a completely different set of expectations and responsibilities.
Being able to look after yourself can be hard, and one of the biggest challenges I had when starting was learning how to recognise when things got too much and how I could keep good wellbeing, both mentally and physically.
Often when somebody is struggling, it’s their support networks around them that are the first to notice and at university, this can often be flat mates, course friends or sport/society members.
Our six Basic Principles are a useful reminder of what signs to look out for in your friends and can be good starting points to work out whether what you’re noticing is a significant change in behaviour or not.
Looking After Your Friends
That first conversation can sometimes be the hardest part, so making sure you get the environment and timing right can be important. It’s much better if the conversation can be private, in a relaxed environment, where you’ve got enough time to discuss how they’re feeling properly without distractions. Depending on how close the friend is, it’s important to think about how much they may want to disclose, and that you respect whatever their limit is.
When having the conversation, it might not flow naturally like you might expect it to, so it could help if you were to ask more open ended questions, so not to limit conversation and use approachable body language to stimulate conversation and openness. Personally, I’ve always found active listening skills to be really useful in conversations like this, such as asking questions or summarising to show you’re understanding (i.e. what I’m hearing from this is …) as well as nodding and smiling when appropriate.
What happens after they’ve spoken to you about how they’re feeling? Do you change how you treat them? No. Sometimes that can be the biggest worry to someone is that they’ll be treated differently if they talk about how they’re feeling, so it’s important to keep up with the fun stuff (i.e. coffee trips, library study dates, or movies nights).
Signposting is the best thing you can do after they’ve spoken to you, because however much you may want to support them, the most useful thing you can do is direct them towards professional help. Maybe offer to walk with them to the SU Advice Centre or Student Wellbeing, or help them search for online services such as Steps2Change or BigWhiteWall. There’s only so much you can do, and sometimes just being a listening ear can be enough for them, but knowing where to go if it’s not, can come in use.
Looking After Yourself
Supporting a friend can be hard, and sometimes it can feel like it’s all on your shoulders. Simple things like keeping up with your own hobbies and other friends may sound basic, but can make all the difference. It’s also completely normal to want to talk about the situation with someone, depending how much support you’re offering to your friend, it could be becoming a big part of your life, so there’s no shame in getting support for yourself. Dropping in to Student Wellbeing or SU Advice in order to talk to someone about how you’re feeling can be a really good way to feel the weight be lifted off your shoulders.
However much you want to help your friend, there is always got to be a limit and it doesn’t make you a bad person if there are things you don’t want to talk about or if you urge your friend to solve more of their own day-to-day problems, this can even be helpful for their own confidence.
If you’re reading this and have realised you haven’t seen a friend in a while, or one of your flat mates seems much more agitated than they usually do, why not drop them a message? Why not pop to their room with a cup of tea and a biscuit? Reaching out when you notice something is up can make all the difference, and sometimes just asking “how are you, really?” can be enough.
For more information on specific support services please see our Advice Centre welfare here.
If you’re interested in finding out more about how to look out for a friend in need, Abi (VPA & I) are starting to roll out “Look After Your Mate” training sessions to Activities Committee Members, with the goal to be to roll this out to more students in the long term.
The content of this blog is based on the “Look After Your Mate” principles from Student Minds.