Karen Pérez Cruz (she/ella) is the current Program Lead of the UASU Peer Support Centre. She holds a BSc in Psychology from the University of Alberta, and is completing her MA in Counselling Psychology from Yorkville University. She is also a published author and researcher within the field of psycholinguistics. Her research has been published in the Journal of Memory and Learning as well as The Mental Lexicon. Karen is passionate about mental health advocacy within marginalized groups, including her own Latine community.
I sat down with Karen to talk about being a supportive friend. Our discussion ranged from what being a supportive friend looks like, why it's important, and some skills you can use to support friends through difficult times. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Andrew: For those who are unfamiliar with the Peer Support Centre, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Karen: The UASU Peer Support Center (PSC) offers anyone in the campus community - that includes students, alumni, and staff - free and completely confidential supportive listening sessions. A common question is, what is supportive listening? Sometimes it’s called active listening and it really means providing a space for you to open up about anything that is concerning you without judgment. We really believe that you’re the expert of your own experience so we don’t offer advice.
Also, few people know that we can support you through any worries you are experiencing. So whether that be school stress after you failed a midterm, or maybe you are having thoughts of suicide. We can also support you if you are concerned about a friend or family member’s mental health.
Perhaps you are only interested in resources, that is ok too! We have a large database of resources both on campus and off campus, and we can help you navigate what resources may be most useful to you.
Anyone can drop by our office in SUB 2-707 to receive support by a trained volunteer. We’re open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9-5pm and Tuesday and Thursday from 9-7pm.
Andrew: What is your role at the Peer Support Centre?
Karen: My journey in the PSC began in August of 2020, right in the middle of covid, as a supportive listening volunteer. I remained a volunteer for a year until I was given the opportunity to work as the Volunteer Coordinator for the PSC. After having worked that position for about a year, I was then lucky enough to transition to the Program Lead role which I am in now.
As Program Lead, I oversee the overall operations of our Centre. This means the ongoing support of over 50 volunteers, maintaining relationships with our campus and community partners, and ensuring our protocols and procedures meet best practices.
Andrew: What does it mean to be a supportive friend?
Karen: To answer this question, it might help to consider moments when you’ve felt really supported by a friend. What did they do? How did they make you feel? You’ll end up noticing subtle tools you can also utilize, odds are if it made you feel understood then they’ve likely utilized a key aspect of supportive listening, which is oftentimes empathy.
Empathy is always at the root of any healthy and supportive relationship. Empathy is placing yourself in another person’s shoes, and for a second imagining what they must be feeling. It does not mean asking ourselves what we would do or feel if in their shoes, rather, asking what they must be experiencing given their circumstances.
Andrew: Why is it important to work towards being a supportive friend?
Karen: You would be surprised to know the amount of folks that feel like giving advice and solving a friend's problems is exactly what someone needs in a friend. This is totally common, and who doesn’t love to give advice? Perhaps that is exactly what someone needs, that is more than ok! However, you’ll find that oftentimes people are seeking support from a friend because they simply want someone else to listen. They want most to feel like someone hears them, and has tried to understand a glimpse of what they’re going through.
The basis of supporting a friend via active listening and empathy are just as valuable in any type of relationship. It will be incredibly impactful in building deeply meaningful relationships. In fact, you may even be the first truly supportive friend someone has encountered, and this can inspire them to continue receiving the support they need. Listening to others fully, allowing yourself to be neutral and non-judgemental, will be valuable for any interactions you have in your life.
Andrew: How can someone be a supportive friend? What does that look like?
Karen: A great place to start is by letting the other person know that it is a safe space to open up, and to be vulnerable. Let them know how much you care for them, and that you are actively making time to support them. Openly talking about painful things can be really tough for anyone, and sometimes it’s not obvious if it is ok to talk about negative things to friends. I know I often worry about overwhelming my friends with my problems, and so reminding them you’re there to listen is always helpful.
Use active listening tools to make sure we’re understanding them correctly. Being supportive means we never assume we know exactly what someone is going through or must be feeling. It can be really disempowering to have someone tell you what you’re feeling, when it’s likely incorrect or misunderstood. Using paraphrases and summaries are useful in this case. We can paraphrase what the other person says by rephrasing their statement in other words.
Andrew: What does good paraphrasing look like?
Karen: For example, if your friend says: “I just feel so angry right now, I don’t know why my parents expect so much of me”. A paraphrase to respond with would look like: “Gosh, it sounds like you’re feeling a lot of pressure from your parents, did I understand that right?”. We always want to ask if we’ve understood them correctly so they can correct us if needed. Using paraphrases in supportive conversations goes a long way to make the other person feel we are trying our best to understand them. It also helps them better acknowledge their feelings.
Andrew: What tips would you have for those trying to support a friend through a difficult time?
Karen: It’s ok to feel worried about making a friend feel worse by checking in on them, or opening up. This is a totally normal fear! It might be hard to believe, but oftentimes simply talking to someone else can be exactly what a person needs. When someone has come to you for support, they may not want to fix the problem - it’s more likely than not they just wanted to feel heard and valued.
Andrew: Anything else to add?
Karen: Anyone can be a supportive friend, it does not require special training or experience! It does require a commitment to yourself to recognize that in that moment we are simply listeners trying to understand another fellow human being in the most caring and empathetic way possible. If you or a friend are going through a tough time, it is never too late or too early to reach out for support. Feel free to stop by our offices if you’d like to chat, or are just curious about what resources are available to you!
If you’d like more information on how to support anyone in your life please email us via email@example.com.
Thank you, Karen, for taking the time for this interview and sharing your insights on how to be a supportive friend.
Andrew Schultz (he/him) is a third year Psychology student currently completing an internship at the Office of the Student Ombuds. He has been a volunteer at the Peer Support Centre for three months. When not working and studying, Andrew enjoys spending time outdoors, reading, and bouldering.