College Freshman Asks How Can I Help Friends Who Are Cutting?

Reader’s Question

I’m a freshman, and there’s just so much depression surrounding me. You see, my best friend used to cut her wrists, and I fear she’s reverted back to old habits. She refuses to talk to me about it, and I get that it might be a tough subject, but she shuts me out completely. I’m starting to feel like, for some reason, she doesn’t trust me. I see no reason for her not to, considering we do everything together and can talk about anything except that. Another one of my friends has also been cutting his wrists on a somewhat regular basis. He was recently evaluated by a psychologist and they said he could kill himself at any time. I know him very well and I don’t think he would do something that drastic. He trusts me a great deal and is relying on me to help him get through this. I’m of course willing to help and would never turn him down, but it puts a big weight on my shoulders. My friends aren’t the kind of people you’d expect to be doing all this, and I don’t want them to be judged. I just feel like I’m slowly slipping down a bad path and would love some advice on what I should do. Should I confront her about her past habits? Should I continue trying to help him? Or should I say no and tell him he needs to see someone who can really help him? Any input would be greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

This is a situation that often prompts a transition from youthful friendship to adult responsibility — and the responsibility goes in both directions. Some guidelines:

  • Your friends are involved in their own complex psychological issues that prompt their cutting. While one hides the behavior from you, the other friend is relying on you to help them through this situation. Both are totally ignoring how their behavior impacts on you, creates stress in you, and may damage you emotionally. You are not a mental health professional and can’t accept responsibility for fixing their cutting behavior or their depression. You are responsible for protecting yourself in this situation.
  • You can continue to help them — but as a responsible adult. With both, emphasize the need for professional mental health treatment. You can help them by contacting the college counseling clinic or community resources to find out what help is available. You can do your homework in this area and have answers to their questions such as “Who do I see?”, “How do I get there?”, etc.
  • If you suspect your best friend is cutting herself, confront her as both her best friend and as a responsible adult. Assure her that you will not stand by and act as though nothing is happening. You will also not support her behavior although you will support professional treatment, even going to an appointment with her. These responsible-adult confrontations often cost a friendship, but they also often prompt people to see the truth in their behavior. Adults often confront other adults on their alcohol/drug use, marital issues, personal behavior, reckless driving, etc. These confrontations are not easy, but they are necessary.
  • As part of being a responsible adult, assure both that if they continue their behavior, you will be forced to make an adult decision and notify their parents or professionals at the university/community. Nobody likes this part of adulthood, and sometimes these decisions come very early in life — as when middle and high school students report another student with a firearm or one who makes threats to harm other students. This aspect of being an adult is difficult.
  • You must give up the concern that they might be judged. That’s a minor concern when we look at life-threatening and physically harmful activity. The major issue here is their safety. Cutting is often one of many symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. The quicker they obtain professional help, the better their chances are for a full recovery.

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If you sit down at a poker table, look at the other players and can’t determine who the “sucker” is — it’s you! In this situation, if you can’t see a responsible adult in this group — it’s you! Make your discussion with both based on their safety and need for professional intervention — not the friendship. In truth, the friendship is why you are having this very uncomfortable discussion with them — because you do care. Over the years, I’ve had many uncomfortable conversations with other adults. Most return later to say it was appreciated…although not always at the time.

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