Take Care of Your Friends
Over the past year, there’s been a great deal of electronic ink spilled on a variety of topics relevant to teens. Suicide is in the news. Opioid addiction is in the news. School shootings are in the news. All the time. These topics – from what we can see, at least – are second only to the frenzy of political news about foreign powers working to affect the outcomes of our elections, debates around the pros and cons of the current President of the United States, and the slow trickle of actual facts concerning FBI investigations into both.
Let’s leave all the international intrigue and political stuff aside for a moment. Let’s talk about something we believe all teenagers can relate to: friends.
You Can Make A Difference
The point of this post is not to put extra responsibility on you, but rather, to remind you that you can have a huge influence on your peers. Whether they’re good friends, casual acquaintances, students you know from class, extracurricular activities, or just that random kid whose locker is next to yours, we want to remind you of the unique position you’re in, and the positive power you can have in the lives of people you barely know.
We make this point for a couple of reasons:
- Though adults have the power and authority to directly control many aspects of how teenagers spend their time, and therefore, to a limited extent, they can control their behavior, adults will probably never know everything that’s going on in a teenager’s life. We know this because, whether it seems like it or not, every single adult was once a teenager.
- You see and hear things we never will. Like how kids respond to teachers in class. And how kids respond to the words and actions of their peers, positive or negative. And in many cases, you see how your peers change over time. You may have known some of your high school classmates since grade school. That puts you in a prime position to see changes adults might miss.
Let’s circle back to suicide, opioid addiction, and school shootings. There’s ample evidence that none of these horrible things ever come from nowhere. Scratch that: impulse suicide happens, but rarely. The majority of teens suicides are committed by individuals with a history of mental illness, substance use, or trauma. The majority of teenagers addicted to opioids likewise have a history of substance use, mental illness, or trauma. And – you guessed it – individuals who commit mass school shootings tend to have a history of one of the following: trauma, psychosis, or psychopathic behavior.
Yes, we have sources for all this, but we’re not here to give you a research assignment.
This post is meant to drive home a simple idea.
If You See Something, Say Something
Don’t take that wrong: you don’t have to go running to a teacher, a principal, or somebody’s mom or dad. Here’s what we mean:
- If a peer seems depressed, moody, or agitated every day for more than two weeks, then talk to them about it. You probably know best how to approach peers, but general rules of thumb include being kind, being understanding, and above all, listening without judgment. Sometimes a teenager just needs to know someone notices, and cares enough to ask how they’re doing.
- If a peer talks openly, brags, or makes a big deal about partying, doing illegal drugs, or raiding their parent’s medicine cabinet for opiates or other prescription medication, then talk to them about it. Same rules go for reaching out to someone who’s depressed or showing signs of mental illness: be kind, listen, and don’t judge. Let them know you’re there if they need someone to talk to.
- If a peer talks openly about suicide or hurting themselves, don’t just let it slide. Use your instincts on this one. Plenty of teens are like “fml so depress rather be boiled in oil than study for chem” all day long. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about things like “I won’t be around much longer” or “It’ll all be over soon” or “No one will miss me” or “My family would be better off without me.” These phrases don’t mean the person saying them is going to try something, but they should not be ignored. If you hear these things, then reach out to the person saying them. Same rules: be kind, be open, and listen without judgment.
- If a peer talks about committing random acts of violence – particularly shooting up the place or showing them all who’s in control here – then take note. If this particular peer is also openly obsessed with guns, glorifies violence, or talks about known school shooters in the news as heroes, then don’t let it slide. In this case, it may be a good idea to talk to a school counselor or some other adult authority figure.
Keep It in Perspective
Let’s clarify: one comment on one day that makes you go “Hmmmmm….” might not be cause for alarm. But when the hints, behaviors, and questionable talk are persistent or extreme, that’s when it’s time to pay attention. Mental health professionals typically use similar language to what we used above: when symptoms of … [depression, anxiety, paranoia, etc.] continue every day for two weeks or more… that’s when whatever is going on might cross the threshold from regular human moodiness to real mental illness.
Let’s also be clear about another thing: only a mental health professional can diagnose a mental illness.
That said, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals don’t see and hear the things you see and hear. You’re on the inside. And as close as parents and adults may be with their teenage children, the students they teach, or the members of the teams they coach, they’re not in a position to see all the red flags.
You have a special view of your peer’s lives. For that reason, you can make a difference. A big difference. Sounds cheesy, but sometimes all someone needs is a kind word and a hug. If they need more than that – and you can sense it – then it can’t hurt to reach out to an adult and tell them about what you see and hear. There’s almost no downside, and the upside – well, you can figure that out: the upside may be that someone gets the help they need before it’s too late.
Bottom line: pay attention to your friends and don’t be afraid to reach out.
You’d want them to do the same for you.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.