As I replied to these women and learned more about their suicidal teenagers, I decided to talk to a few experts and compile a list of resources for parents of suicidal teenagers. Although I hadn’t found many myself, I assumed they must be out there. What I discovered instead is there is no such thing as a roadmap, just parents doing the best they can in a system that’s plagued by funding crises, a scarcity of mental health providers, and little to no help beyond the creation of an immediate safety plan. It shouldn’t have been a surprising discovery in a country that’s known for its mental health stigma, but it was.
Some of these solutions are still in development, but they are reflective of a greater movement toward openness about mental health.
Find parents like you. No matter how alone parents may feel, teen suicidal ideation and attempts aren’t rare. The Jason Foundation’s parent resource program indicates that suicide is the second leading cause of death in children age 10-24 years old and the CDC’s 2013 national Youth Behavior Risk Survey (YRBS) reported that 17 percent of teenagers have seriously considered attempting suicide.
Despite these statistics, every mother of a suicidal teen I spoke to emphasized how isolating the experience was. Many of these parents have been forced to remain quiet because their children begged them not to tell anyone, including their closest friends and family members.
Even when parents are able to talk about what’s happening, many of them say their friends and family don’t want to hear about it or don’t know how to respond. Parents tell me they miss their friends deeply but don’t know how to talk about their children when their lives have veered so wildly off course. One mother, who asked that I refer to her only as Mel, said: “I miss those talks, but how can I share stories about how my daughter insists she’ll get pills or a gun from a friend to finish the job, or about how she stashes razor blades in books and under her mattress?”
To get real support, parents frequently need to look outside of their usual support networks and find other parents who are in the same boat. Local YMCA chapters often have support groups for parents and teens, and they are located throughout the country. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can also connect parents with support groups in their area. For parents who don’t live near in-person support groups or don’t feel comfortable going to them, DBSA’s Balanced Mind Parents Network, an online community, comes highly recommended by parents of suicidal teens.
Understand this may be a long haul. When my son was discharged from an in-patient psychiatric hospital after a few days, we left with a safety plan, a prescription for an antidepressant, and a few phone numbers to call in an emergency. That was the beginning and end of our post-discharge support, and the ins and outs of parenting a child who wanted to die were left entirely up to me. Before my son left the hospital, his clinicians assured me he would be fine. They told me we had caught it early and they acted like he would make an immediate, complete recovery. Many parents I spoke to said they were told the same thing when their children first entered mental health treatment. Some of these parents have since been by their children’s sides through multiple suicide attempts; one has parented her son through 15 suicide attempts over a 15-year period. Although clinicians should be up-front with parents about the fact that depression and suicidal ideation aren’t quick-fix problems, that type of candor doesn’t always occur. Annemarie Matulis, director of the Bristol County Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention in Massachusetts, emphasizes how important it is for parents to set appropriate expectations for themselves. “It’s a rare case that there’s one episode and then it never happens again,” she said. “We need to be okay as a society with saying that we need to take this a day at a time. Things may get better but there may be some bumps on the road.”
Focus on yourself, not just your child. When your child’s life is at risk, it’s almost impossible not to enter crisis mode. I let everything else fall by the wayside as I focused on getting my son help, but after a few weeks I realized I was hanging on by a thread.
If parenting a suicidal teenager is a marathon, not a sprint, parents need to learn to take care of themselves, too. It requires an enormous amount of resilience to parent a suicidal teenager and you need to take care of your emotional health to be an effective parent. Therapy is often recommended for suicidal teenagers, but it can be just as helpful for their parents. Therapy is by no means a magic bullet, however. My therapist focused on helping me keep my son safe instead of encouraging me to process my emotions. This disconnect isn’t rare for parents in my shoes. “Therapists try to talk to [parents] about signs and symptoms of suicide,” Matulis said. “They know the signs and symptoms. They are living with the signs and symptoms.”
If therapy isn’t helping you take care of yourself, there are other ways to engage in self-care. Devoting small amounts of time each week to activities that leave you feeling replenished can make a big difference for parents who are living on the emotional edge. Jonathan Alpert, Manhattan psychotherapist and author of the book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, says parents often fail to recognize how important it is to take care of themselves during a crisis. “Parents shouldn’t overlook just how powerful basic stress management can be: eating healthy, getting proper sleep, exercise, and having a strong support system,” he said. Other methods of self-care that can be helpful are journaling, massages, bubble baths, reading, coloring, or taking a walk. Even just setting aside one hour per week to sit alone in a coffee shop can help so much in what sometimes feels like an endless cycle of crises and appointments.
Let go of your sense of control. When our children are young, we control every aspect of their lives. As they get older, it can be hard to know where they begin and we end. If our children struggle with mental illness, it’s even easier to assume their problems and try to control the outcome. It’s only natural to do everything we can to save their lives. The problem with this line of thinking is that it places the responsibility for keeping our kids alive squarely on our shoulders. When teenagers become suicidal, it can be impossible to prevent them from succeeding in their suicide attempts, no matter how hard we try. Doing the best we can, while acknowledging our lack of control, is how we can learn to forgive ourselves for our children’s struggles. One parent, who asked me not to use her name, told me she began to accept her own lack of control over her son’s suicide attempts when she attended a local support group. At that meeting, she heard another parent speak who had been convinced her son was better after a few years of suicidal ideation in his teens. He eventually committed suicide at 28 years old. “The reality is you just never know when it might happen,” she said. “You really have to accept it and make peace with it.”
Find creative ways to get help. Depending on a family’s circumstances, there can be an astonishing number of barriers to accessing mental health care and services. Despite people like Matulis who are actively working to remove these barriers, there won’t be a magical solution to this problem any time soon.
In the meantime, there are a number of innovative and creative ways to help your child (and yourself). Parents I spoke to recommended everything from bio-feedback to hiring parenting coaches to help them navigate day-to-day parenting challenges. If those methods aren’t practical for your family, you can find a variety of helpful resources online. One of these is a powerful documentary, spearheaded by Matulis, called A Voice At The Table. This film highlights the stories of four suicide attempt survivors. Since the film’s release, the response has been so overwhelmingly encouraging that Matulis is now in the process of developing four spin-off documentaries, one of which will focus on young adult suicide attempt survivors. Matulis is also working to create more resources for parents. She recently launched a workshop called Is This The Night that focuses on the unique experience of parenting suicidal children. Alongside the workshop, Matulis is releasing a workbook that can either be used by parents on their own or by clinicians who want to lead similar workshops in their own areas. The workbook heads to print in a few weeks and will be available on her website.
Many teens won’t participate in therapy or support groups, but they are open to using their phones to manage their mental health. There are a number of apps already on the market that are designed for teenagers with mental illness. These apps primarily focus on crisis intervention and daily mood check ins, and they can be particularly useful tools for teens who don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents about their feelings.
The problem with existing apps is that none of them support peer-to-peer interaction. Jennifer Oko, a mother with her own mental illness history, hopes to change that. Oko and co-founder Sharon Cichy have created a new app that allows mentally ill teens to connect with their peers in a moderated and safe setting. When I showed my son the app, Psych.E, he was enthusiastic and said he would gladly use it when it becomes available. Although Psych.E is still only in the fundraising stage, it has promise for teens who are most comfortable using technology to interact with each other. “Peer-to-peer engagement is the single most effective kind of therapy for teenagers,” said Oko. “We need to provide a safe, positive way to do that in the world they work in.”
Above all, parents need to remind themselves that depression and suicidal ideation are epidemics among teenagers. Connecting with other parents in their shoes will help them remember that their children’s mental health challenges aren’t their fault.
Jody Allard is a former techie turned freelance writer living in Seattle. She writes primarily about parenting, recovering from childhood abuse, and life with a chronic illness. She can be reached through her web site, on Twitter, or via her Facebook page.
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