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To the Teenager Who Wonders If It's Normal to Have Suicidal Thoughts

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To 16-year-old me,

Can I just say, this is weird? It’s weird, mostly, because if this letter somehow got to you, then I would be different and writing a different letter which would cause you to be different and then me to be different and so on and so on. So, luckily, time travel does not exist, and we’re all good. This is really just a letter to other 16-year-olds using myself as an example. Good times.

There’s so much to say. I could tell you who you marry (you know her), how many kids you have (yes, you have kids), or where you live (you’d never guess), or even what you do as a career (again, you’d never guess). But, these are not why I’m writing to you. No, I’m writing to you to implore something else from the younger me.

First, though, can I just get a little something off my chest that will help you out in the long run? Don’t listen to the motivational speakers they bring in – they’re full of crap. There’s no way, with your lack of size and build, you can be an NBA basketball player. Similarly, you are not going to discover the cure for cancer. You’re not going to change the entire world with some thought or action. But you can change the world for people you encounter day in and day out. That makes the difference and makes the world a better place. Leave the other stuff to other people.

OK, I got that off my chest. It’s been bugging me for 20 years.

Back to the topic at hand, which I haven’t even told you yet. It’s really pretty simple: you’re sick. You have a mental illness. Now, now, don’t delete this or wad up the paper and throw it away or stop reading. I know this is hard to hear, and it will be even harder to deal with. I know you are a smart kid. You are one of the good kids who never really gets into trouble. No one would suspect you of having a mental illness. No one would believe you if you told them, probably. But you do. And the sooner you understand that, the sooner you’re life will take a truly good trajectory.

I know you have a mental illness because I’m you. I know the thoughts that plague you. I know you have what we call “suicidal ideation.” This means you sit around and dwell on ways to hurt yourself or to even kill yourself. It dominates your thinking at times, even if you believe you would never act on it.

I know one of the things you tell yourself is this is just what normal teenagers do – they think these thoughts. I’m here to tell you that, no, they do not. It’s not normal. It is not normal to sit in a class and feel like you are literally going to explode, that you have to dig your nails into your forearm, that you must bite your fingernails off, that you must bite a finger, that you look for every escape, even if it is an ultimate one. This is not normal.

I think you understand this is not normal because you won’t talk to anyone else about it. You don’t talk to your friends, your pastors, your teacher, your parents, your guidance counselors. You don’t talk about these feelings, and it’s because you are ashamed. Deep down you know they are not normal. And you’re right. They’re not. But you have them, and you should not feel shame because of that. You should start to look for places to get help.

First, talk to your parents, Mom and Dad. They know something is a little off about you. They know you have a hard time, but they don’t understand. You still need to talk to them because they care deeply about you. Eventually they are going to send you to a counselor, and he’s going to give you a free pass. Don’t go to that counselor – he doesn’t get it. Mom and Dad want you to go somewhere else, and you should go. Listen to them. They know what they are talking about.

Second, your high school is not a place to get help. For whatever reason, they don’t get it (they still don’t). Most people in the school are not qualified to notice or help students with a mental illness. That’s a sad state and one that will put you at risk and in danger now and in the future. So, be sure to find the help you need and to press for it from people who are qualified to get you that help.

Third, I know you are involved heavily in church. I still am as well. It can be a great source of encouragement and hope. However, oftentimes, it will also be a source of disappointment and hurt for you. It’s good to know the church does not have all the answers in regards to these issues. And, if someone questions your spirituality or tells you to simply pray, they have no idea what is really happening. Your mental illness is a lot like diabetes in that it requires constant care. The church would probably not tell someone to pray away diabetes or question a diabetic’s spirituality. In the same way, they should not question your mental illness.

Fourth, continue to be creative. Writing. Playing music. Acting. Improvising. All of these help you tremendously. Continue that creativity, and do all you can to cultivate the creativity in yourself. It’s something that allows you to release tension, to be less anxious, and to put your energy in a place that is not dwelling on some of your more internal demons.

Last, you need to talk about your mental illness and give people hope. This is what you do now. You are open and honest about the thoughts you have, the feelings that both help and destroy you, and you help people by talking about these things. Your honesty gives people hope. And that helps you – it’s somewhat selfish, but your ability to help people is a way to help yourself as well. You have survived and “made” it through some really rough and terrible places – talk about that, and be open about how that makes you feel and about how others can also get through those times. That’s the way you can actually and honestly change the world.

So, that’s my letter. There’s so much more to say. But, this is a good start. I’ll write again at other times. Just know as you sit there and listen and feel nothing but a desire to end it all, there is better to come for you. And you can begin to cultivate that better now by being open and honest with the people who love you, by seeking help from licensed counselors, and by putting together a whole program of recovery that includes spirituality, eating well, exercise, counseling, and meds. Developing this at 16 will help you tremendously 20 years later. I promise!


​Your older self

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: November 15, 2016
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