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5 Ways to Support Your Friend With an Illness While in College

I have a close friend here at my university. They are a sweet friend who has bonded with me over the shared experience of illness. Although we have different diagnoses, we lean on each other daily for love, advice, and hugs.

One of the common themes in our conversations is how to handle friendships and relationships at our college. It’s a tricky subject to navigate normally, but one that immediately becomes more complicated once the issue of illness enters the picture.

Together, the two of us have spent a lot of time discussing the barriers in our friendships and relationships with other physically healthy friends, but I think it’s important to talk about the other side of these interactions – what it’s like to be the friend, family member, professor, or loved one of a person who struggles with major illnesses.

Two women smiling together in college

When any friend is struggling, it’s always awkward to know what to say and how to react. As a junior in college with multiple diagnoses, I’ve had some incredibly awkward, discouraging moments with my peers and acquaintances. On the other hand, I have truly wonderful friends who have unconditionally been there for me every step of the way.

So what makes these experiences so different? How can you best love and support those of us with illnesses while we’re in college?

Since we’re talking about university, the following list of ideas has, of course, been subjected to the highest level of peer-review by experts in the field (university students with chronic illnesses and disabilities). With their permission, I’ve also included some anonymous quotes to give this some personal perspective.

1. Ask for practical ways you can help.

This may seem obvious – really obvious – but it truly means the world.

Offer to fold a load of our laundry, make us a cup of tea, bring us Gatorade – literally five minutes of your time could make our lives infinitely easier.

Oftentimes, we’ll appear to be managing the big things just fine. We’re turning out papers, studying, and doing research like everyone else – but we’re exhausted, hungry, and discouraged, and we won’t be able to do the normal, little things that have to get done in our every day lives.

“Please, please ask about what you can help with. Better yet, just show up. You don’t have to always bring me giant baskets of get-well goodies, and it doesn’t have to pre-planned or super special. Some of the sweetest and most encouraging moments of my time at college have been when people randomly texted me, ‘Hey, heard you’re having a bad day can I come over and do something for you?’ Then showed up to do really, really small things like brush my hair, prop my pillows, and help me take my medications.”

2. Don’t tell us to quit, drop out, or take a medical leave, even if you think we’re far too sick to make this work any longer.

Maybe you’ve wondered how we’re going to graduate, or how we manage to balance hospital stays, intense treatments, and hundreds of doctors’ appointments on top of school, work, and extracurriculars.

Or maybe you’ve wondered why we’re in school at all – if someone you love was diagnosed with a life-threatening or terminal condition, you probably wouldn’t want them to spend their remaining time scraping by at university, turning out papers and cramming for exams.

To be completely honest, many of us already think about dropping out about 20 times a day. It’s an all-too-present reality. The truth is, we know our bodies better than anyone else and if the time comes for us to leave school, we’re going to leave school. No discussion required. Until then, we’re going to keep earning our degrees.

“From a personal standpoint, it’s important for me to keep going, and college is something I get to participate in that’s *not* my illness.

“I often think about it like this – illness is a lot to deal with and it’s practically my major. College and schoolwork? Pfft. That’s a fun minor I added to spice up my life!”

3. Treat us like normal college students.

Ask us to parties, ask us to concerts, ask us to the movies – we won’t always be able to go, but it means the world to know you’d like to include us. Text us, tell us the school gossip, send us memes and silly videos, and hang out in our dorm rooms both when we’re sick and when we’re feeling OK. This also goes for other parts of friendship; please don’t forget that we’re here for you, too.

“If I offer to help you or take care of you when you’re stressed or struggling, know that I genuinely mean it. It isn’t too much work, it won’t push me over the edge. I care about you, and I want to make sure you’re doing well and hanging in there. I know how much it means to have people who care, and you can depend on me to keep my word like you would any of your healthy friends.”

4. Expect us to be honest with you.

When we say we can’t, we truly can’t. We do not have the energy or physical ability to manage a rager, an all night study session, or an overload of fast food. There will be plenty of times when we will gladly party with you, talk all night with you, and go out to dinner with you. But when we say we’re tired, it’s not a half-baked excuse – we truly mean that we are completely, totally exhausted. Exhausted, as in we don’t necessarily have the energy to shower, read a book, or even turn over in bed.

“My disability sucks at times, and I’m going to be honest with you when things are going horribly. I keep going day after day through incredible pain that would land most people in the ER, so when I say that I hurt or that I can’t show up, I’m not exaggerating. I mean that things are really bad.”

5. Notice when we’re not around.

If you don’t see us in class, we’re probably having another rough day and we’re stuck in bed, stuck in the hospital, or stuck in a doctors’ appointment. There is nothing more crushing than the feeling of being forgotten – and that feeling is exacerbated when we know that our friends are at parties, in cool classes, and doing fun things, and we’re stuck in pretty miserable situations with no contact from any of them.

“If I had to rank the absolute worst facets of disability and illness, I’d put loneliness at the very top. Missing out on class and activities due to illness is miserable, and sometimes it makes me feel kinda like an outcast. Getting a quick text from a classmate saying, ‘missed you in class – let me know if you need anything’ somehow makes the misery a lot more bearable, and I think it’s just because I’m reminded that someone does care about me and notices my absence.”

Just be a good friend. As with all friendships, be present, flexible, respectful, and kind.

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