Teens often turn to one another, instead of their families, as their first line of support. A cry for help often gets shared with a friend first, either directly, in passing, or online, such as a Snapchat story, Instagram post, or TikTok. According to The International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, an increasing number of teens are posting images of their self-harm on social media. In addition, there has been a sharp increase in the use of hashtags such as #selfharm and #hatemyself.
Whether through a social media post or comments in conversation, peers may be the first to notice signs that a friend may need help. Unfortunately, many adolescents are reluctant to seek help or support from an adult. So, when in distress, the response that a teen receives from their peers can be very influential and significantly contribute to their decisions moving forward.
Signs That a Friend May Be Suffering from a Mental Health Disorder:
There are signs that teens can look for that may indicate that a friend or peer is struggling.
- Talking about hurting themselves or someone else
- Talking or writing about death or no reason for living
- Acting uncharacteristically reckless
- Withdrawing from others, pushing away, and wanting to keep to themselves
- Changing moods quickly and without reason
- Expressing hopelessness
- Giving away valued possessions
Ways to Respond to a Friend Who Shows Signs of a Mental Health Disorder:
Teens should understand that it is not their sole responsibility to make sure their friend stays safe, but there are things they can do and say to help.
- Listen non-judgmentally and without jumping to conclusions or assuming without being told.
- Let the person know you care, that you are genuinely concerned about them, and taking the situation seriously.
- Provide support by expressing empathy for what your friend may be going through.
- Ask your friend what they would like you to do to help and have them identify a trusted adult that could be of assistance
- Letting a friend know that there is hope and ask them to think of a time that was challenging in the past that they were able to get through. This helps build the idea that they can get through it.
- If there is a true concern about self-harm or harm to others, as a friend you need to get a trusted adult such as a school counselor, teacher, or parent involved.
What to Avoid Saying or Doing When a Friend Shows Signs of a Mental Health Disorder:
There are certain things that a teen should avoid saying or doing when their friend has shared a mental health concern. These include:
- Making statements or asking questions in a way that gives you the answer you are looking for. For example, instead of saying, “You’re not thinking of doing something stupid, are you?” ask open-ended questions that invite your friend to respond honestly.
- Don’t promise secrecy. Your friend may say that they don’t want you telling anyone that they are suffering from something like anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, or suicide contemplation. You might be concerned that they will be upset with you, but it is more critical to help ensure safety when someone’s life is at risk. So, rather than promising secrecy, you could say something like: “I care about you too much to keep a secret like this. You need help, and I want to help you get it.”
When a teen is concerned about a friend who might be suffering from a mental health disorder, they should turn to a trusted adult such as a school counselor, administrator, trusted teacher, or parent (either their own or their friend’s parent). If suicide is a concern, the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by text at 741-741. The website also offers a chat feature.