Kids and counselors agree: the start of the school year puts a lot of strain on MHS students. A wave of homework and tests can exacerbate existing family, social or mental issues, and there’s no easy way to avoid it. Luckily, Minnetonka goes through it together as a community. High schoolers have friends and counselors to lean on, and when that isn’t enough, they even have their parents. The trickiest part, though, is figuring out how to help a struggling friend.
Changes like sudden irritability, disheveled clothing and absence from social events can indicate that something is wrong. Many kids are too stubborn to directly ask for help, so one may notice these changes without any verbal cues.
The first step towards getting them help is often as simple as recognizing their odd actions. When trying to open a conversation with them, try to start with sympathy and specificity. Tell them about what differences one has noticed, and tell them why with specific examples from recent events. One shouldn’t act differently from how they normally do, though, because then the friend may feel like a charity case, and begin to close themself off again. Bringing up examples limits their capacity to brush weird behavior away, and the friend is instead compelled to either explain what’s happening or admit out loud that something is wrong in his or her life. It is aso important to keep the tone of the conversation friendly. If they don’t want to talk, then let the conversation go.
After someone’s outer shell is broken (which, according to Minnetonka counselor Amanda Wavrin, is rather tough to do with teenagers), act as more of a sympathetic ear than an advice giver. Telling the friend what they need to do won’t help, and it often prevents the listener from hearing the incredibly important emotions and stressors they have to share.
“Ask ‘how are you doing?’ and be an empathetic listener.” says Wavrin.
Just be a shoulder to lean on; that’s often more helpful than anything a person can say out loud. Never try to fix a friend’s problems, because with any issue, especially mental health, it can never be explained away. Instead, the friend will investigate and begin to fix their own problems, consciously or unconsciously, as they talk, and their mental health may actually start to improve. After the initial conversation, schedule a follow-up date, whether it be a hangout or a phone call, to check in on them, as well as to show support and availability for more than a one-time help session. Continued support is the key to helping someone in need. On the other hand, being a friend turned therapist can be harmful to the friendship.
“It’s important to remember to not become dependent on a friend. They’re not a professional, and it can become very stressful for them,” said Chloe Rieger, ‘22.
So strike a balance. Talk to the friend in need and support them like always, but push them to talk to a counselor or parent, too. After all, students never have to go at it alone.
“You guys are good at supporting each other,” Wavrin said, “but kids need to know that it’s always okay to reach out for help.”