Friendship//

The Single Most Effective Thing You Can Do to Help a Friend Who’s Going Through a Hard Time

A really small gesture has the greatest impact, studies find.

Photo credit: Klevers / Shutterstock
Photo credit: Klevers / Shutterstock

Knowing the right way to help a friend or family member going through a difficult time, whether because they’ve lost a loved one or are suffering from depression, can be uniquely challenging. We all struggle to find that sweet spot between saying too much and too little, but the research confirms, unequivocally, reaching out is critical.

Looking at a nationally representative sample of 635 Canadians suffering from suicidal thoughts and chronic pain, researchers at the University of Toronto found that the biggest factor in recovery was social support. Those with a confidante, defined as someone able to provide “emotional security and well-being,” had an 87 percent chance of going into remission from their suicidal thoughts, said lead author of the study Esme Fuller-Thomson, Ph.D., the chair of the university’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Here’s what to keep in mind when expressing your love and concern:

Check in with no strings attached

Two studies demonstrate that the most powerful and effective way to communicate your support is a simple check-in whether via text, postcard, or telephone call.

When you reach out, do it with no strings attached and in a positive, nonjudgmental way, Ursula Whiteside, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who studies suicide prevention at the University of Washington in Seattle, tells Thrive. When someone is struggling emotionally, their capacity to accommodate your wishes for them (as well-intentioned as they likely are) will be extremely limited — and an added hardship, psychologists warn. So steer clear of pestering them to “get out” and socialize, or return your call and invitation to hang out.

Bring up a happy memory

Whiteside also suggests referencing some happy history the two of you share: “Pair your reach out with a positive memory. Allow it to be a conversation starter,” she says. And try reflecting their strengths back at them: “It’s a form of giving hope. You might say something like, ‘I was just thinking of you. I know you’ve been through so much lately, but I’ve seen how strong you are, and I know you’ll get through it,’” she proposes.

Let them know you’re available for support

“Instead of a generic, ‘Let me know if you need anything,’” get specific about when and in what capacity you’re available to help them should they need you, Whiteside advises, and check in with them in that time frame to let them know you’re there.

If you or someone you love is suffering from suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Dr. Whiteside’s non-for-profit suicide prevention organization, NowMattersNow.org, for resources and help.

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