What trying to help my friend taught me about mental health

The National Alliance on Mental
Illness reports that 1 in 5 kids suffer from a serious
mental illness. These kids feel isolated and
alone, and they need support. Most parents just
want to help, but these kids are so paralyzed
with fear of rejection, judgement, or even punishment
from their parents that they do everything that
they can to hide their pain. They paint a smile. And they tell their parents
that everything’s okay. And they avoid
school counselors because they don’t want those
counselors to talk to their parents. So these kids turn to us, their closest friends, for help. But truth be told, we, as teenagers,
don’t really know how to help them. We do things like cover up for them,
or run away from them, or ignore them. We lie to them,
lie with them, or pretend it doesn’t
exist altogether; but rarely are we doing
what’s best for our friends. I discovered this truth
in seventh grade, when I found out one of my closest
friends was cutting herself. As much as I pretended not to notice,
I knew that she was struggling. I noticed in Math, that she drew
lines that resembled the scars on her wrist all
over her paper. I noticed the agony and
the desperation in her eyes. I noticed all
her suffering. But I didn’t act. I did not know what to do,
and I felt a constant internal battle. I didn’t know if I should’ve
talked to her about it, talked to someone
else about it, or just ignored
it altogether. And I was paralyzed by my own fear
of approaching it the wrong way. At one point, she was admitted
into the hospital on suicide watch. Suddenly, I couldn’t neglect
my conflict anymore. I made a commitment
to myself. I wanted to save her.
She needed a friend. When she returned to school,
I began to check in on her every day to make sure that she
wasn’t hurting herself. But she wasn’t
getting better. I was so focused on taking care of her
that I stopped taking care of myself. My grades suffered. I wasn’t getting
enough sleep and I lost all interest in the
things that mattered to me. At one point,
I began to cut myself because I knew she
wasn’t getting better, and I had convinced myself
that it was my fault. My parents noticed that
I wasn’t being myself. But I made sure to hide
the truth from them. But no matter how many texts I deleted,
no matter how many pictures I erased, no matter how much
I covered the truth, my parents knew
something was up. At that point,
I shut everyone out: my parents, my sister,
my closest friends. The only person I was
talking to was this friend. And we relied on
each other for help. But I didn’t how to help her,
and she continued to hurt herself, so I felt like
a failure. Eventually, I went to a therapist who
helped me realize the obvious: I could not help this girl
without helping myself. I realized that my friend’s
suffering wasn’t my fault, nor was it my responsibility to
prevent her from hurting herself. I realized that my friend’s happiness and
wellbeing were not my responsibility. I could support her, but I
wasn’t prepared to heal her. It took time apart and a new perspective,
but it ended up being for the better. The next year, she ended up going to a
different school and making new friends, I made new friends.
Time went on. Now, I’m in a better place
than I ever have been, and it’s because I learned
a valuable lesson that year. The best thing that you can do to help
your friends is to help yourself. Before even looking at
what was best for my friend, I needed to ensure that I was in
a safe place to offer my support without getting
too drawn in. I needed to be stable enough
to recognize that her happiness and her survival were
not my responsibility. It wasn’t my burden to bear; it wasn’t something I
could’ve done alone, and I wasn’t prepared
to help my friend. This is what I
didn’t realize and it caused my friend to get worse
and to drag me down with her. But with proper awareness and strength,
you can support your friends. Each situation is going to be different,
so you need to ask for help. Ask the adults in your life who are
prepared to handle these situations. All you need is some backing
while supporting your friends because the weight that you’re bearing
is only perceived responsibility. It’s not your
weight to bear. Unburden yourself. Our friends are calling out for our
support in their search for help. Not calling for us
to be their help. Our responsibility isn’t to
provide their happiness and it isn’t to cure them. Our responsibility is to let them
know that they’re loved without losing ourselves. Unburdening ourselves frees us to guide
our friends to the help that they need. Thank you. [applause]

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