Mental Health

Teens and Mental Health, Part 2: Helping a friend who is struggling


October 19, 2022

In a recent Twitter Spaces chat, area teens had questions about helping someone who is struggling emotionally — and Vanderbilt’s mental health experts had answers.

A recent Twitter Spaces chat between members of the Boys & Girls Club of Middle Tennessee and experts from Vanderbilt Health unearthed deep questions from teens about mental health — and teen-friendly answers from Vanderbilt physicians and researchers. In this three part-series on My Southern Health, we’re sharing some of the best takeaways from that conversation to help teens who may be struggling with their own mental health — or who may be trying to help a friend in need. In this part, our experts discuss how to help someone who is struggling emotionally and how to spot the signs that someone needs extra help.

To listen to the conversation in full, be sure to tune into Season 3, Episode 1 of Vanderbilt Health DNA: Discoveries in Action, and then follow along for more episodes on mental health.

The question: How do you know when it’s time to ask someone for help for a friend who’s struggling emotionally with mental health issues like depression and anxiety?

Expert advice: Be open and honest.

“It’s really great when teens are available to one another and open to talking about depression, anxiety and other serious concerns — that’s so important,” said Dr. Meg Benningfield, Division Director for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for Vanderbilt. “And it’s also important to recognize that sometimes these challenges are too big to manage alone without reaching out for additional support.”

“Tell your friend that because you care about them, you may need to get someone else involved.”

“The first thing I would say is it’s OK to need some extra help — these are not challenges that any teen should expect to be able to manage on their own. The next thing I’d say is that it’s important to identify adults in your life you can trust to be supportive and who you know will protect your privacy and your friend’s privacy. Very often when people are in crisis, that sense of privacy is so critical to them. Tell your friend that because you care about them, you may need to get someone else involved.”

Expert advice: Some secrets cannot be kept.

“If a friend is sharing with you thoughts about suicide or self-harm, it’s OK to say to your friend, ‘Your safety is too important to me to keep this a secret,’” Benningfield said. “Even though they may have asked for privacy, it’s OK to set some boundaries and tell them you’re going to need to get help. Feeling like you’re the only one responsible for someone’s safety is just too big of a burden for any of us to carry on our own.”

Expert advice: Listen to your intuition.

“Even as an adult, as a physician, I sometimes realize, Oh gosh, when I left after talking to that patient, I felt really down. I really picked up on the fact that this person is struggling with something here,” said Dr. Aima Ahonkhai, an infectious diseases physician who cares for teens with HIV. “And even for me, it’s a sign that I need to do something more. So if you feel that way too, even if your friend isn’t specifically asking for help, you may pick up on those signs that you need to help them get support.”

Vanderbilt Health DNA

The current season of the Vanderbilt Health DNA: Discoveries in Action podcast explores how the current watershed era of change impacts our mental and physical wellbeing. Episodes so far in Season 3 have covered new pathways for suicide prevention, childhood anxiety and more.

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