*This article contains content that some viewers might find sensitive*
As part of my internship at Robin, I was invited to attend the JED Foundation Suicide Prevention training, led by Dr. Wenimo Okoya, for all team members and coaches. In the training session, we learned that alarmingly high rates of high school students are experiencing suicidal ideation, or thinking about harming themselves. The data from the JED Foundation survey of high school students was collected before the pandemic. This was absolutely horrifying to me, but not that surprising…
I learned that a huge problem is that people aren’t taught about mental health in the same way that they are taught about physical health. Think about this: students are introduced to Shakespeare and Algebra well before they are taught about stress and anxiety. Since these things aren’t discussed at a young age, kids don’t know what to do when they eventually experience it.
The lack of knowledge and awareness surrounding mental health and the importance of maintaining your emotional wellbeing means that when people are struggling, they don’t want to talk about it, because it is not something that is normalized. In fact, Dr. Okoya even mentioned that embarrassment is the #1 reported reason for students in high school not getting help for mental health issues, according to data from that same survey.
Dr. Okoya talked about how communities need to shift their mindsets. There have to be changes to the community level, which is often easier said than done. Ultimately, cultivating a culture of care and community where people are supported and aware as well as educated about their own mental health is the goal. It is absolutely crucial that problems with mental health be normalized for young people and adults to promote open and honest conversations where people can get the support they need.
During this training session, I learned 3 ways you can help a friend who may be unhappy or struggling:
1) Let your friend know you are there to talk about anything – without judgement.
While it can be incredibly difficult and awkward to find the right words to say to a friend, it is extremely important to meet them at their level. This means exercising active listening skills instead of trying to fix them. If you’re ever worried that a friend might be seriously unhappy, but you’re nervous about interfering and making them upset, you should always go with your gut feeling. There is a reason why you are having these concerns and urges to talk to them in the first place.
If someone is struggling, there are several warning signs that sometimes involve drastic changes. If you notice changes in appearance, mood, speech, behavior, clothing (maybe they start dressing differently), relationships, academic performance, etc., it might mean that they are going through something. It’s important to ask yourself “What would I want if someone were reaching out to help me?”
2) You can begin by explaining WHY you’re concerned.
Show compassion, listen to them–once again, you don’t have to solve problems–and most importantly, know your limits. Asking open ended questions where that person is able to explain themselves is essential, and also helps to make them feel heard.
3) Urge them to get professional help….
If your friend is really unhappy and you’re concerned about a potential suicide risk, ask them about it. Simply asking if they’re having suicidal thoughts does NOT actually increase the likelihood of them going through with it. Asking them and providing the space for open conversation might actually make that person feel relieved. They might feel heard, like they’re being listened to, and ultimately less alone.
That being said, it’s also critical to remember that while talking to them might make them feel better, it’s not going to solve anything. You should urge them to get professional help and contact a trusted adult immediately.
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About the Coach
Katherine Emery is a rising senior at Bucknell University majoring in Psychology.Meet Katherine