Why We Need to Have ‘The Talk’ About Mental Health With Our Children

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Parents of teenagers know we need to have “the talk” (or many talks) with them 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 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 my son, 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 If even a fraction of what I could have said had stuck in Noah’s mind, maybe he wouldn’t have withdrawn in shame and thought he had to “man up” when depression, anxiety, and PTSD swamped his soul after a friend’s suicide at college.

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 20s. When a friend who was active in National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 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 website 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 his parents 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?

So many “what ifs” pile on to the endless “could-have/should-haves” that surround Noah’s suicide. 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. And to ask others to please help spread the word.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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