I am asking this partially to gain advice, and partially to better understand a friend. Let’s call this friend Steve.
Steve has been missing school quite frequently, and me and my other friend (let’s call her Lee) are pretty sure he has some form of mental illness or depression. He has no excuse for his absences, and if he misses more days, Steve will not be able to pass the grade. Lee and I want to help him, but we are both afraid that if we ask him, he will get defensive and close off. Basically, if we ask him, and he takes offense, Steve might never talk to us again about anything. And if he doesn’t come to school, our chances of asking any questions he will answer go down even more.
When asked about why he’s always missing school, Steve usually avoids the question and tells us that it’s complicated. As neither Lee or I are experts on depression, we Googled the symptoms, and Steve exhibits more than just a few. He has frequent mood swings and gets worked up over what seem like, to us, the smallest issues. Whether or not Steve has depression, he’s missing so much school that he might be held back. If we tell the school nurse about why Lee and I think he’s missing so many days, he might be allowed to pass (if he does have depression). But because the nurse will probably tell him why she thinks this, our friendship would be at just as much risk if we had just asked him flat out.
Are Lee and I correct on the assumption that Steve has depression? Should we ask him, or tell the nurse even if it ruins our friendship?
Well, let me ask you this, Sparkler: are you by any chance trying to ruin the friendship? Like, is that actually your ultimate goal?
Because if so, then by all means, keep on doing what you’re doing. Between needling your friend on an uncomfortable subject, snooping into his intimate affairs, and diagnosing him with mental illness using a list you found on the internet (!), you’ve got an absolute bangup recipe going for friendship flambé (that is, if the whole thing hasn’t gone up in flames already).
But if that’s not what you want—if you are, in fact, planning to continue being friends with this guy for the foreseeable future—then this is the part where Auntie SparkNotes must gently inform you that your solution to this problem begins and ends with you learning to mind your own beeswax.
Is your friend going through a rough time? Probably! Might that rough time be mental health-related? Maybe! But darling, whatever your friend is dealing with, it is very obviously none of your ding-dang business. And when the guy has already made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to talk about it, it’s really uncool of you to go playing depression detective in an attempt to unravel what he wants to keep private—let alone go to the school nurse with a bunch of wild assumptions about what’s wrong with him. As you yourself have pointed out, you and your pal Lee are not experts in depression, nor do you have the kind of authority or insight into Steve’s life that put you in a position to intervene. So while I know your desire to help Steve is coming from a good place, please, take a second to recognize how incredibly over the line you are right now. And then, take a big step back. Okay?
Because once you’ve done that, I have good news: as much as it’s not your place to monitor your friend’s health and attendance record, it is someone’s place—and just because you don’t see that person, that doesn’t mean they’re not there. If your friend is in danger of being held back because he’s missed too much school, I promise you, his parents or guardian and the school administration know about it, and they will deal with it. That’s their job! Whereas your job, as Steve’s peer, is to support him to whatever extent that’s possible (and to whatever extent you want to, of course.) And if you’re not sure how to do that, you could always try asking him—not about why he keeps missing school, but whether there’s anything you can do to help him out while he’s going through… well, whatever he’s going through. We all need friends like that, who care enough to be there but are also respectful enough not to pry. And not for nothing, when a person is ready to open up about something private and complicated, those friends are usually the first ones to hear the whole story.
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