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How to Help a Friend in Need
Anonymous
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When I look at my friends, I see the people I've known for so many years and who I confide in. I also see a group of screwed up kids who have been through so much: relationships that ended badly, school problems and depression.

Last year, I watched a friend get really down and stop acting like the person I'd known for years. He even tried to OD. And if you read the news, teen suicide is increasing-it's the most common cause of death for people between 15-24! What's up with that? Why are so many teens feeling alone and angry? And what can other teens do to help their friends?

I really wanted to know the answers to those questions, so I turned to the professionals: two social workers who work with young people.

'Acting Out' Our Feelings

John Pettinato, a former social worker who is now the principal of Institute for Collaborative Education, explained that some of the most common signs of depression are: not doing well in school, major problems with parents/guardians, and drug use.

Other signs are smaller and harder to notice, like seeming unresponsive or particularly quiet, sleeping too much or having insomnia, eating too much or too little, and being angry or sad for what seems like no reason.

Mr. Pettinato said teens tend to "act out" their issues, meaning that if they're angry, it can lead to violent outbursts, or if they're sad, they may have random crying fits. They may not even know what's wrong.

Some withdraw, others deny ever caring about what they used to like to do. If you see your friend change and show warning signs like these, your friend might need to get help.

Show Your Friend You Care

If you think a friend is hurting, there are several ways to help. You can just show him you care and encourage him to open up to you. "When a person is having difficulty, they need their friends," Mr. Pettinato said.

By spending time with a friend and really talking with him, you can help him figure out what's getting him down.

"Teens, by definition, feel alienated. Leaving them alone only justifies those feelings," he said. Just showing you care and will listen can help. Teenagers especially are more likely to listen to a friend's point of view before anyone else's.

Mr. Pettinato also recommends what he called an "intervention," which is when a group of people discuss someone's problem with them.

image by Melanie Leong

For example, if you think a friend is feeling down, you can tell him that you've noticed a change in him and you're concerned. Tell the person what changes you've seen, and ask what's behind them. Remind your friend that you're available if he needs to talk.

You want to talk in a comfortable environment, and take care not to be judgmental. You don't want to make the person feel he's done something wrong.

Teens Try to Handle Themselves

Unfortunately, your friend may not open up. Many teenagers are either afraid or unwilling to tell adults about their problems. Gary Mallon, who teaches at the Columbia University School of Social Work, explained that young males are taught by society not to ask for help.

"From when they're little kids, they're always told, 'Be a man.' They're expected to handle their own problems because that's what men do. It makes it difficult to talk to adults about what's bothering them," he said.

Mr. Mallon pointed out how, in many families, communication is strained and awkward, because teens are unwilling to share their feelings. Also, many teens, young males especially, mistrust adults, turning to friends instead. But other teens often don't know how to handle their friends' serious problems.

For example, when my friend tried to OD and then told me about it, I didn't do anything because I felt overwhelmed.

Encourage Friends to Get Help

Mr. Mallon suggested that friends refer teens in trouble to school counselors, various hotlines, and professionals like social workers and psychologists.

"If your friend tells you more than you can handle, you should refer him to a professional for help," Mr. Mallon said. He encouraged teens to seek help for themselves if they don't feel they're getting enough support.

"When you feel you've gone as far as you can with your support network of friends and family, like if they feel they can't help you, or they're tired of hearing what you have to say, or if they just say they don't know what to do, you need to turn to a professional," he said.

Mr. Pettinato said that any time a person may be in danger of hurting himself or others, you should always speak up. When my friend told me he tried to OD, "it was his way of telling you he was so needy he might have killed himself. In that situation, you definitely should've told a professional," Mr. Pettinato said.

If you're feeling like you have no control over your life, or you're not taking pleasure in your life, you should definitely talk to someone. If your friends can't help you, or you feel like you might hurt yourself or someone else, definitely talk to a counselor, therapist, or hotline worker.

Are you a caring adult looking for more stories to help your youth? Go to HeretoListen.org, a resource for the front-line staff in schools and community based programs to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.

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