A little more than two years ago, while on Facebook, I noticed that someone I knew through another friend had posted an upsetting status: “I don’t see the point anymore. I’ll miss you guys.” I commented, “Is this serious? Are you OK?” I also messaged his best friend, who told me that she had called his parents and the police, who sent help right away. She told me that, luckily, they were not too late and he was stopped. The situation could have been much worse if his friend had not taken his post seriously.
That night, I texted a close friend about this. We wondered what our school was doing to help people who were going through rough times. I’ve always liked to help people and I’ve never had a problem talking to someone even if it’s a sensitive subject. So a few days later we talked to one of our school’s co-principals. We talked about what we had seen on Facebook and said we wanted to do something to help others. A school counselor suggested a peer-counseling program. The counselor, two of my friends and I tried to start one but it didn’t work out.
Then one day last February, the counselor called me and my two friends into her office. She had found out about the opportunity to become a peer moderator at ReachOutHere.com, which is an online forum where teens can share their problems and get advice or encouragement from members who have been trained to respond. She said it was a paid position and urged us to apply. I was excited that I could help other teens.
In March I was flown to San Francisco for the weekend for an orientation with 12 others between the ages of 17 and 24. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do as a peer moderator. But I felt comfortable around these people because everyone shared a common goal.
The people from ReachOut said we were going to encounter problems like depression, drug and alcohol use, and physical or verbal abuse. They trained us how to respond. They said that if the person posting their problem was overcoming something, congratulate them on what they’ve done so far. You can relate to them to make them feel like they’re not alone. They also told us about the importance of suggesting that someone does something rather than telling them they have to. This helps them feel more comfortable. There are also adult moderators who monitor the posts. If the poster needs immediate help they’ll be referred to hotlines and resources.
They also said that everyone using the site would be anonymous so there was no fear of being judged.
I thought I’d be able to help if it was something I’d seen friends go through, like depression and anxiety. I’d never known someone who’d been abused or had drug problems but I felt that with time I’d be able to help.
When the site was launched in June, seeing people with problems on the site made it more real. The forums are always available, but most posts are made from the afternoon until night. Scrolling through, I thought, “Where do I start?” I wrote 10 or 12 responses the first day. Most of the posts I replied to said, “I don’t feel like I have any friends,” “I feel overwhelmed at school,” “I feel like I don’t meet people’s expectations.”
I’d had similar problems with the stress of school and meeting everyone’s expectations, like balancing marching band, jazz band and bands I’m a part of outside of school, as well as homework and other extracurriculars. If I couldn’t relate, I’d say I’ve known someone with a similar problem. I wanted them to feel like they weren’t talking to a stranger. At the end of this day, I felt more comfortable with what I was being asked to do, but still not entirely sure if I was up to the challenge.
When choosing which posts to respond to, I would look for people having problems that I felt I could help with.
One day I came across a post by a girl who was caught in the middle of fighting friends. They both came to her saying, “You have to take my side.” She wasn’t sure what to do. I thought back to how I’d made mistakes by taking sides with friends. The advice I gave her was to be there for both of them but don’t take a side. You’re not hurting the other person by just listening.
Most times they said thank you. Other times I would never hear back from someone I responded to and wonder if they had gotten the help they needed, or if they had come back to the site at all.
I helped a girl who felt alone
Two months in, a girl posted about how she felt like she didn’t belong at her school or have any friends. She felt depressed. I gave examples of things she could do: join a club, branch out from your usual social circle. She asked, “How can I branch out?” I said, “Be yourself or look for people with similar interests.” She said she’d try. Eventually she came back and said, “Thanks for the advice. It really helped.” Getting feedback made me feel like I’d made a difference instead of hoping I had.
Not every post works out. One day I saw a post from someone who said he was 15 and had never had a girlfriend. There were responses from the other peer moderators. “That’s perfectly normal.” “You have your whole life ahead of you, not having a girlfriend isn’t a big deal.”
No matter what we said, he said he still felt bad about it. We couldn’t tell if we helped or not. Maybe he wasn’t ready to help himself.
This job ended up being more important than I ever expected. I feel like I’m making a difference when people say, “Oh this helps.” It’s an amazing thing that there’s someone on the other side of a computer somewhere who’s being helped by the advice they found on the forums.
If you ever feel like life is too much to handle, go to the forums at ReachOutHere.com. Someone will be there to listen and give advice if you need it. Even if you don’t need advice, you can still use the site to leave encouraging replies for others. Listening is sometimes the most important part of helping others. People just need someone to talk to and tell them it will be OK.
This special package is funded by the Mental Health Services Act, Prop. 63