Guest Opinions

If you’re the parent of a teenager in crisis, know you are not alone

MCT

As the parent of a suicide-attempt survivor, I have learned a lot.

Prior to my experience, I didn’t spend much time thinking about what it is like for people struggling with mental health challenges because I have never had one, or been around someone in that sort of crisis (who spoke openly about it).

I didn’t believe my child when she said she was depressed. I would try to cheerlead, distract or lecture her out of her lows, and in moments of utter frustration at her behaviors or lack of action, I would get angry and tell her to “get her act together.”

Depression and suicide attempts weren’t supposed to happen in my house; we were a functional and stable family. I also wasn’t able to discern what behaviors were warning signs and what behaviors were to be expected on the spectrum of teenage development.

Through this experience, I learned the sad reality of how few mental health services exist in the Treasure Valley, especially for children. I understood stigma for the first time and I took a hard look at the culture today’s teens are trying to survive, and I came out the other side with an incredible amount of empathy.

[For background, Idaho is consistently among the states with the highest suicide rates. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans ages 15-34 and for males up to age 44. Source: Idaho Department of Health and Welfare ]

It is a challenging time to be a teen and a parent. While there is a lot of support for new parents and young babies/children (birthing classes, play groups, etc.), once they become teenagers, we are isolated in the wilderness of adolescence, often in reactive mode as we try to survive the hectic day-to-day.

We default to whatever parenting beliefs and tools came through us from past generations. Throw screen technology into the mix, and the research that is correlating its use with rising depression rates, and suicidality leaves many parents desperate for additional tools and support.

I am not alone. If you are the parent of a teen experiencing a crisis, neither are you. The number of teens experiencing mental health challenges is shocking. My response to our experience was first to educate myself and become a warrior for my daughter’s healing. Next, it was to get involved in a greater community conversation and ask myself, “What can I do to make the road easier for other families?”

My advice for parents is this: When you and your child are experiencing anything from power struggles or risky teen decision-making to a more serious mental health crisis, try these things:

  • Work toward empathy, compassion and curiosity rather than blame (including self-blame).

  • Educate yourself to know the signs of suicide and how to communicate openly about it.

  • Research how to connect with professionals when help is needed.

  • Take a Youth Mental Health First Aid Class. Classes can be found here.

  • Build a network of support for yourself as well as your child.

  • Watch for signs with friends and neighbors, advocate for better services in our state and offer friendship to someone who is lonely.

My experience after my child’s attempt has been one of hope. My perspective on how to communicate and connect with teenagers has shifted completely. I have been gifted the opportunity to be in a relationship with her in new ways and I am deeply grateful to report that she is thriving as she embarks on her first year of college.

As a community, I hope we can all continue to work together to ensure that no parent loses a child to suicide.

A good first step is to work with intention to increase our compassion and empathy, because “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HELLO to 208-398-4357.

Vashti Summervill is a PCI Certified Parent Coach (www.vsparentcoach.com) and a certified teacher in the state of Idaho. She is the secretary of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Coalition (https://www.idahospc.org/) and a member of the St. Luke’s Pediatric Family Advisory Council.

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