A Cry for Help

What to do when a friend threatens violence

Editor's Note: No individual teenager sent this question, but when Helen speaks to teens, a version of this question is frequently asked.

Q. Every time there's one of these school shootings, I wonder what I would do if I had a friend who was mad at people at school and who told me in confidence that he might "do something." Everybody says stuff when they're mad that they don't really mean, but it seems like when these killings happen, people say it might not have if everyone had paid more attention to those guys' threats. What if somebody you'd known since you were kids, somebody who'd never done anything really violent, started talking about guns? Or revenge? What should you do? Betray him by telling somebody? What if he was just joking? What would happen to your friendship?


Even though these incidents are still fairly new to us, this is one that has been around a long time. And it has to do with recognizing, and acting on, pleas for help. The fact that your friend would be fantasizing about killing people, "getting even,"or doing something violent might well be an unconscious plea for help--not to assist him in some terrible act but to save him from his own irrational impulses. His message might be like that of the serial killer who repeatedly scrawled the words "Stop me before I kill again."


The circumstance that comes closest to this imagined situation is that of a teen I talked with who desperately wished she had not kept secret the knowledge that her friend Phyllis had talked about suicide. At the time she felt that Phyllis wouldn't actually kill herself because she "had so much to live for." When Phyllis took an overdose and died, this young woman was devastated, realizing that she might have done something to save her friend.

Helen Fitzgerald is a nationally respected educator, author, and lecturer on bereavement. Her books include 'The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide', and 'The Mourning Handbook.'

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Helen Fitzgerald
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