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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am in a scary situation and hope you can help. I am 15, and my best friend, "Mary," is also 15. Mary has another very close friend, "Rachel," who goes to a different school. I've met her only a few times.

Although Rachel appeared normal and friendly when I last saw her, Mary confided in me that Rachel has a troubled life. According to Mary, Rachel has a negative attitude, has withdrawn socially, lost a lot of weight and repeatedly mentions suicide. Mary said she has tried to kill herself more than once, but I have no details.

It seems obvious to me that Rachel is depressed and a danger to herself. I discussed this with Mary and asked why Rachel is not receiving help. She said Rachel's parents are unaware of her condition. Mary said she would be uncomfortable telling Rachel's parents because it would destroy their friendship. I don't think Mary understands how important it is to get Rachel help.

Although I am not close to Rachel, I am concerned for her. I can only imagine how devastated Mary would be if she lost a friend to suicide knowing she could have helped. Without angering her, how can I convince Mary that she has to help her friend by telling someone? Or is this none of my business? -- FRIGHTENED FRIEND IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR FRIGHTENED FRIEND: Someone must tell Rachel's parents what is going on. If you can't convince Mary to ask her parents to speak to Rachel's mom and dad, your mother should call Mary's parents to express how concerned all of you are over Rachel's welfare. I urge you to act quickly -- and I commend you for caring so much about a troubled friend.

DEAR ABBY: I am sure your column helps a lot of people. I notice that you quite rightly suggest people with problems see a counselor.

However, Abby, the title "counselor" is used by many diversely trained individuals, and it's important to understand the differences.

Psychiatrists are MDs. They are the most expensive of all counselors, the most highly trained and the only ones who can prescribe medication.

Clinical psychologists must have a Ph.D. and be state-licensed.

Social workers must have an undergraduate degree and a master's degree in social work. Many staff members in organizations dedicated to helping others call themselves social workers. Unfortunately, some of them may not even be high school graduates.

In religions, the situation is even worse. There are pastoral counselors who have doctorates in that field. Some of them do more harm than good. They do not know how to listen, they are judgmental, and tell troubled people who come to them that if they don't change their lives they are sinners!

I suggest that anyone who seeks counseling be very careful and check the counselor's credentials. -- FATHER ALEX SEABROOK, ST. BONIFACE EPISCOPAL CHURCH, TINLEY PARK, ILL.

DEAR FATHER SEABROOK: I agree it's important to know the level of expertise of the person who's giving advice, and that's why I advise readers who need counseling to seek a referral from their physician or their local mental health association.

Dear Abby is written by Pauline Phillips and daughter Jeanne Phillips.

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