To the Mental Health Workers Who Help Children in Crisis

Dear mental health workers,

First of all, I applaud you, especially if you work on an inpatient unit with children and adolescents. I know you’re run ragged, I know you work exhausting hours. I know you go to work every day (or night) knowing you might be physically or verbally assaulted. You’re under pressure to produce results, to teach these kids coping skills and new ways of thinking, when most of them probably snarl at you when they hear the words “coping skills.”

My daughter is currently in the hospital following a suicide attempt. It’s not her first hospitalization or attempt. I wonder if you’re getting tired of seeing her. The past few nights during visiting hours, she’s seemed more and more discouraged.

“I just don’t feel like anyone listens to me,” she said, her voice trembling, tears streaking her face.

I sat beside her and nodded, hoping she’d tell me more.

She wiped her nose with the sleeve of her black jacket she always wears. “I know some of my thoughts are irrational,” she said, “but sometimes I just want somebody to say, ‘I get it.’ or ‘I get where you’re coming from.’ Then they can talk to me about coping skills (eye roll) or help me find ways to change my thinking. But they just jump into telling me what’s wrong with my thinking.”

I thought a lot about what my daughter said. She didn’t say she was opposed to being challenged on her thinking. She just wanted to know she’d been heard first. To feel understood… validated.

Don’t we all want that? If you had a terrible day at work, if a kid on the unit physically attacked you, you’d want to vent to someone. You might go home to your spouse or roommate and say, “My day sucked. A kid attacked me and another one tried to escape. I really hate my job.”

I would imagine you’d want some validation, some understanding. What if the only response you got was, “Do you really want to focus on all the negatives about your job? Why don’t you tell me all of the positive things about your job instead.”

I realize it’s a fine line with kids who are in the hospital, kids who are in crisis. Many of them do need help with changing their thinking or finding healthy coping skills, my daughter included. But please don’t forget the profound impact active listening can have. We all want to feel heard and understood. That in itself can be healing. I think our kids can be both heard and challenged. Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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