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.
It is not insigificant that the boys who did the killing at Columbine killed themselves, or that others have either died, or hoped to die, when carrying out their plans. Thoughts of suicide are often closely tied to the distorted thinking that leads to violent acts like this. Even if they don't lead to shooting and killing, they could lead to suicide.
So how can you know? A joke or a serious threat? It's always difficult to know what people really intend by the things they say since language allows us to use violent terms simply to blow off steam. "I'd like to knock his block off," we will say, when all we mean is that we're irritated by something someone has said or done. We don't really intend to do anything physical at all.
The same could be true of your friend. But, like Phyllis' friend, would you want to take a chance? Generally, people in a healthy state of mind don't fantasize about blowing up buildings or killing people. They don't talk about "doing something" ominous. If a friend ever confides in you this way, don't assume that he's joking. For his sake as well as that of his imagined victims, do something!
But what? It's important that you not carry this burden alone. I suggest that in such a situation you request a confidential meeting with your school counselor or another adult. The counselor then could suggest that the three of you meet to see if your friend is OK, or if he needs some outside help. If he needs help, the counselor could arrange for him to see a therapist or possibly participate in a group for depressed teens.
Would this be "ratting on" your friend? Absolutely not, any more than Phyllis' friend would have done anything wrong by telling someone about Phyllis' plan to take her own life. Pleas for help aren't always what they appear to be. Even someone who swears a friend to secrecy, may be saying, in an indirect way, that he wants and needs that friend's help. Think about it, if Phyllis had really wanted her plans to be a secret, why would she tell have told anyone--including her friend? Often, people on the brink of dangerous acts tell someone because they hope that confidante will help them stop. As a friend you surely want to respond to that plea.