DEAR HARRIETTE: A student of mine (a 10th-grader) brought me a paper he wrote over the holidays. He was eager for me to read it in his presence, which is not usually my practice. But I read it, as he seemed intent upon getting my opinion on the spot.
What I read was disturbing. This young man seems to have had some kind of psychological breakdown. I am no expert on the matter, but in his writing, he states that he eventually went to a psychiatrist, who told the student and his mother that he has a specific mental condition.
He wants to publish something about his experience. This may eventually be a good idea, but the work he presented is not ready for publication. I didn't know what to say to him, so I referred him to an editor friend. I realize this was probably unfair, as I gave my friend no warning about what he would be responding to.
I don't think I handled this well. I don't want to hurt this young man's feelings, and I don't want to put a friend in an awkward situation. What can I do now? --Perplexed, Seattle
DEAR PERPLEXED: You are right that you should not have referred your student to your editor friend without an advance conversation. It's not too late to fix that.
Call your friend and explain what you know about this student's situation. Ask for his professional opinion about the literary value of the work in question. Is there a chance your student could be published with a few tweaks, or does much more work need to be done? Your friend may even be able to give constructive suggestions to this student without being too critical, based upon his emotional state.
You also should talk to the student about his experience. Ask how he's doing now and if he is getting the support he needs. Tell him you would like to support him further by talking to his parents and introducing him to the school counselor, if they don't already have a relationship. Be proactive by leading him back to his family, possibly to talk to them about the story if he is comfortable sharing it with them.
The fact that he wrote down and wants to share what he has been going through is fantastic. That means he is not ashamed. Help him to communicate further about what's happening to him in safe spaces -- at home and/or with a professional counselor or his primary care physician. Do not try to be his psychiatrist. Leave that to someone who is trained for that purpose.
For more information on the types of mental illness often identified in teens, read aacap.org/cs/root/resources_for_families/glossary_of_symptoms_and_mental_illnesses_affecting_teenagers.
So many children and teens suffer from mental illness. If you have stories of success or challenge that you would like to share, please send them to me.