How to help a friend

Drowning out sorrows, the gift of hindsight and ways to be a better friend

words: Sophie Brown
photo: Laura Ward

While going through the toughest year of my life, it became clear that taking someone out to get them trollied is often the automatic reaction when you express your innermost feelings and concerns. Going through a breakup? You need a gin. Landlord kicked you out? Get a pint down you. Been made redundant? 16 jagerbombs immediately. 

But remember – there’s not enough wine in the world to give the same warm, fuzzy feeling that you get when you know that someone genuinely cares. Your presence could have the power to make the sun shine in a place that’s been dark for a little too long.


The winter was particularly cruel in 2012 and between the frosty mornings and crystal clear nights, I found myself stuck in somewhat of predicament. 

I was living in a rural area I didn’t know with someone who I no longer loved, working a job that I didn’t connect with, and my friends were all back in the city where my heart was firmly lodged. The disconnect between my mind and my soul created a void that stretched 100 miles across the country, and it was when I was isolated that bitterly cold winter that I lost my mind. 

When the little digital clock in the right-hand corner of my computer screen flicked to 5:30 on a Friday, I would sprint to the station with a bag full of cans of gin and tonic and a handful of bad magazines and catch the first train to London where I expected my head and heart to reunite when I saw the faces of the people who I thought cared about me. 

I’d get the overground to South London and sit in my friends’ house drinking too much cheap wine and chain smoking, before heading somewhere dark and dingy with a sticky dance floor. I’d wake up in a foreign bed in a room so cold that the single-glazed windows were slick with condensation and wonder why after all that drinking and dancing and laughing, I was still having a breakdown.  

In the five years that have passed since then, I’ve realised that none of the friends whose beds I shared that year had the foggiest idea of how they could possibly have helped me. Giving tequila to someone who’s having a nervous breakdown is like lighting a match in a petrol station. The problem is that no one wants to be around when the match inevitably drops. 

While guzzling shots in late-night bars might seem like a viable option for helping a friend who’s going through a hard time, I speak from experience when I say that that is exactly what you do not need. 

What I needed was for someone to book me an appointment with the doctor and drag me there while I bashfully refused, saying “I’m really ok, honestly, just fine” over and over again. I needed for someone to run me a bath and make me a toad in the hole and tell me that I don’t need to drink the whole bottle of wine. 

And eventually, that’s what someone did. The doctor signed me off work and prescribed me some drugs that made me head feel like it was in the clouds – in a good way. The scalding hot bath helped me to soak away all those feelings of embarrassment and resentment that the vodka-filled nights had granted me. And to be honest – a good toad in the hole can help to soothe even the most fractured of souls. 

So knowing that a good friend is all it takes to make things that little bit brighter, how can you help a friend regain their strength and get back to their best self when things have all gone a bit pear-shaped? 

Emily Reynolds, author of A Beginners Guide to Losing Your Mind (out 23 February 2017), was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and says that the most supportive things people have done for her during a down period have been deeply practical. 

“When I had a breakdown two years ago, one particular friend would come to my flat to help me do things like go through mail, wash up and clean my bathroom: simple things that I was just really struggling to do. 

“We talked about my problems, but in terms of actual useful help, the best things she did were hands-on.”

Emily’s advice to someone who wants to support a friend is to lend a helping hand. Whether they’re living with a long-term problem or going through a short-term crisis, let your friend know that you’re there for them both emotionally and practically. 

Talk frankly about their problems, avoiding statements that could be considering patronising or judgemental. “Saying ‘you’ll be ok’ might seem like it’s encouraging, and it’s actually probably true, but when someone feels so low they can’t get out of bed it’s not particularly helpful,” says Emily. 

A friend in need is a friend indeed, and if someone you love is feeling blue, it’s not only time to talk, but it’s also time to do. Head over to their flat and do their laundry, take out their bins and change their sheets. Cook a big batch of soul-soothing and nutritious food and sit down together and put the world to rights. Ask open-ended questions and be non-judgemental in your replies. Sit in silence watching trashy TV or reading last weekend’s newspapers.

Just be with them.