Navigating the last twelve months has been complex, for so many of us. The feverish hum of our TV screens as the news changes weekly, the seasons passing us by in the squeeze of a hand sanitiser, and the whirlwind of change that accompanies not just a pandemic, but the academic too.

We’ve had to adapt to a shift in our relationships. Video calls have replaced many of our face-to-face interactions with loved ones, as we crave that human connection more than ever.

With this in mind, it can be hard to spot the signs of a friend who may be struggling while at school, college or University, or even know how to approach the conversation.

If you are worried that a friend may be struggling in isolation, approach the conversation calmly. Be gentle, it’s easy to brush away worries when we feel (especially this year), that everyone is going through something similar.

However, it is important to note that each of us are experiencing this year differently and showing this in a variety of ways. Your friend may be feeling anxious, overwhelmed or stressed, shying away from conversations, feeling irritated or low. It may feel easy to say, ‘everyone is going through it right now’, but this may make the other person feel that their experience is not valid. Be gentle in how you approach.

Here are some tips on how to start the conversation and feel more connected:

Reach out with open questions: Although face to face is difficult at the moment, still do reach out over the phone, text or video call. If calling a friend, approach the conversation by asking how they are, about their day or what they have been up to. Use open questions such as ‘Where would you like to start?’ if they reveal they may be struggling.

Rate the Scale: If your friend is struggling to verbalise how they feel and asking, ‘How are you?’ proves to be a short response, give them space to answer a question that may put it into context. For example, ask ‘If you could rate today out of 10, what number would it be?’. This may prompt further conversation and give you a good place to start.

Words of encouragement: If the signs are a little more subtle, be patient. Saying ‘I’m here for you’, ‘It’s ok’ and ‘take your time, I am here when you are ready’ are words of encouragement that will make them feel they can go their own pace. Words may not come easily to them if feeling overwhelmed, but knowing you are there when they are ready, will make all the difference.

Actively listening: Reflecting back is a way to let the other person know you are listening and understand what is being said. For example, if your friend says, ‘I just feel really stressed all the time.’ you can say ‘Stressed all the time? Tell me what you mean’ or ‘That sounds difficult if you feel that way all of the time, tell me more.’

Simple steps to show you care: The small things are the greatest support of all. If they are in isolation, perhaps picking up some essential items for them may ease some of their stress or sending a favourite song or video to let them know you are thinking of them. Little moments that may give them joy, whilst also extending a hand of practical support, will let you know that you care.