Monday, September 5, 2016

Suicide Prevention Starts at Home: "The Talk"

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, a cause I never noticed until three years ago, and I’m reminded that prevention starts at home. Parents know we need to have “the talk” (or talks) with our adolescent kids about sex and drugs—but do we know we also need to have “the talk” about mental health and suicide awareness, whether or not there is a family history? 

I didn’t. I didn’t think our family needed it, despite my father’s suicide and some run-ins with the mental health system. I didn’t see that my talking openly and matter-of-factly about mental illness might make it easier for my kids to talk without shame and seek help with struggles they might experience. I didn’t realize that such talks can be an inoculation for resilience through the storms of adolescence and young adulthood, when many people experience severe stress and most forms of mental illness have their onset. 

How I wish I’d broached the subject with Noah when his mind was still clear and he was still open to talking with his mom. “You know that your grandfather died by suicide,” I might have said, “but I want you to know more about the depression that led to his suicide because depression is really common and can run in families. It could affect you or the people around you  and I want you to know the signs.” I could have described types of depression, its biochemical basis, how it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and how it can be helped. I could have pointed to the high prevalence of depression and anxiety among college students.

I could have mentioned other common mental health conditions--a term I find so much easier than “mental illness”--and how they, too, can lead to suicidal thoughts. And maybe extracted a promise that if Noah were ever thinking of hurting himself, he would tell me or another adult and hold on for another day, hour, or minute. “Cherish your precious life,” I should have said flat-out. “There will be hard times, especially moving into adulthood, but as you get more life experience, you’ll learn how to handle them and get the help you need.” If even a fraction of what I could have said had stuck in Noah’s mind, maybe he wouldn’t have withdrawn in shame and thought he had to “man up” when depression, anxiety, and PTSD swamped his soul.

Except that when Noah was a teenager, I didn’t have this information or a sense of urgency about the message. I rarely thought about my father’s suicide, which was many years and 3,000 miles away. I saw depression as a tolerable problem of the “worried well,” including myself and most people I knew. I’d put aside thoughts of my father’s depression, about which I knew little, and the persistent, low-grade depression of my own teens and twenties. When a friend who was active in NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) asked if she could do a presentation on mental illness for my college students, I didn’t think it was relevant or necessary; I didn’t understand how common mental illness is and how much college students are at risk. 

What if, before Noah left home for college, I’d seen a copy of something like the booklet “Starting the Conversation: College and Your Mental Health,” produced by NAMI and the Jed Foundation, and sat down to go over it with him? What if such a booklet had been prominent on the parent section of his college web site and handed out at orientation, along with wellness information and an online screening for student mental health? What if Noah had put the contacts for the college’s mental health resources on his phone, as the booklet suggests—might he have used them sooner or more often? What if we’d talked about FERPA and HIPPA and whether he would allow us access to his counselors and counseling records, should there be a crisis, before there actually was a crisis and he was determined to keep everything private? What if all this information built on strategies for mental health and wellness that he'd already learned in high school?

All I can do now is to urge other parents to inform themselves, have those difficult talks, and share information like that booklet with their new college students and their kids' high schools and colleges. For National Suicide Prevention Week and beyond, please help spread the word.


  1. Thanks, I'm so lost. This gives me, something.

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