My friend is in trouble, what do I do?

You may be one of the almost 100,000 students who has had Aware’s Beat the Blues programme in your secondary school in the past three years. This seventy-minute programme highlights the symptoms of depression, when and how to seek help, and also explains the basic principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) using the Coping Triangle model which I developed several years ago. A key feature of the programme is its focus on resilience: how we can develop it and become stronger as a result of facing and coping with challenges in our lives.

If you are over 18 you might be interested in doing one of Aware’s free Life Skills programmes, based on CBT. One is a six-session group programme and the other is an eight-module online programme, supported by a trained Aware volunteer. They both have been proven to be very effective in reducing depression and anxiety.

What if you are coping really well though and are worried about one of your friends? This can be such a difficult position to be in. Imagine you are Julie*. Your best friend Sophie* told you last week that she felt unhappy at home and at school and was only pretending to be in great form with everyone else. What would you do?

Most young people would do their best to be supportive to Sophie. They would listen to her, over and over. They would try to cheer her up, make her realise how fabulous a person she is, how much she has going for her and how many people care for her. They might also encourage her to tell her parents, guidance counsellor, or GP what is going on.

Sometimes this might work, but sometimes someone like Sophie might say something like, ‘I don’t need anyone else to talk to. I have got you’. While this can be flattering, it can also be dangerous. It is not fair for any of us to be put in the position of being the only person to support someone else. Before we know it, almost all our conversations can focus on how they are feeling.

We can do our best to help, but ultimately we do not have the power to make some else feel better.

You might have noticed that in situations like this you leave the conversation more worried, while your friend might actually be a lot lighter. I have met young people who have been told by their friends that they are self-harming. They might have known this for a while and wondered what they could do. Some of them have told their own parents and/or their guidance counsellor, even if they have promised to keep their friend’s problem a secret. Some of them have decided not to tell anyone and only told me because the pressure was getting to them. My concern is that I know there are many young people who keep secrets like this thinking that they are ‘helping’ their friends.

They are not!

So, what do you do? I suggest three things:

When one of your friends says they want to tell you something but you are to ‘keep it secret’ immediately respond by saying:

‘I will keep anything you tell me secret unless you tell me that you are harming yourself or someone else, or are being harmed by someone’.

You might worry that if you say that then they won’t tell you, but that sentence is your self-protection. It is not fair for anyone to tell you that they are harming themselves or someone else, or that they are being harmed and to expect you not to tell an adult who can do something about it!

If you are supporting a friend who always starts to talk about how awful things are, break this pattern. Stop focusing on how he is feeling. Ask instead what he has done lately that he has enjoyed, or what he is going to do that he might enjoy.

Don’t forget to talk about what you have done that you have enjoyed and what you are planning to do that you will enjoy. It is absolutely okay for you to enjoy life and to continue to enjoy life, even if your friend seems unable to do so!

Lately I have heard a few different people refer to the direction by air hostesses that we put our own oxygen masks on first in the event of an emergency on an airplane. It is recognised that we are better able to support ourselves and others, including our best friends, when we look after ourselves too. Please take and continue to take really good care of yourself and become your own best friend!

*Names are fictitious. This blog post was originally published on A Lust for Life February 2016.

Aware hosts a number of fundraising events each year and these are ideal to do with friends or family, or as a solo challenge! Aware relies on these events for 85% of its annual funding and the next event is the Aware Harbour2Harbour Walk which takes place on St. Patrick’s Day, Thursday, March 17th in three locations – Dublin, Cork and Galway.

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