In honor of Mental Illness Awareness week, we wanted to talk to Parent Toolkit expert and school counselor Dr. Shari Sevier about how parents can support their children on a topic that is often hard to talk about. She shares with us her personal story and words of wisdom.
I can still remember the look on my grandmother’s face as we left the cemetery following the funeral for my cousin. She looked so bewildered, probably in shock. She couldn’t comprehend what had happened--no one could--but, for her, it was almost more than she could bear. Her grandson, who she loved so much, had committed suicide. She looked into the eyes of family member after family member, asking “why?” The grief was etched into her face with sorrow and immense pain. There were no answers; we all looked away. But I have carried that face in my memory and heart ever since.
Suicide. It is a parent’s worst nightmare. To realize that the intense love we have for our children is not enough to carry them through tough times is unfathomable. Our every instinct is to protect; how can it not be enough? Was there something else we could have done? Was there more we could have said? That’s all we are left with…questions that will forever go unanswered.
We may have unanswered questions, but there are things we can do to be proactive in helping our children through challenging times. After a series of area suicides several years ago, my boss asked me what I would do if that happened in our school district. I began to list the steps I would take, and she smiled. She knew I would go overboard in a response. But that bothered me. I didn’t want to focus on a response---I wanted, and still want, to focus on prevention. So let’s start there.
Unconditional Love: Our children need to know that their parents love them unconditionally. Yes, they are going to mess up. Yes, they will make poor decisions. Yes, they will do and say things that are infuriating. Yes, they will be embarrassing. Before we take them to task for those things, let’s take a step back and see if we can remember doing the exact same things to our parents. If kids can’t mess up and be certain that their parents will still love them, who can they go to for acceptance? Loving them doesn’t mean that we have to like everything they do, think and say. But we do have to like (love) our children enough to take those moments and help them to look at the situation, consider the consequences, and ask themselves how that situation could have turned out differently. Human beings are not perfect, and we should not expect perfection from our children. They need to be and feel loved for who they are.
As parents, it’s important to watch what we say and do when our kids are stressing us out the most. An off-handed comment, said in anger, can be perceived as truth. And that truth can take on a life of its own, leading to feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and hopelessness. A student told me that his mom said she wished she’d never had him. Now, I’ll be honest, this child was more than a handful. I understand why mom might have said that in anger. But I also saw all that she was doing to help him; there was no question that she loved him and was devoted to his well-being. All he could think about was her comment. We have to remember that, once words come out of our mouths, we can never get them back.
Resilience: In my line of work, I often see individuals who have little resilience. Setbacks knock them on their cans, and some have a very tough time bouncing back from them. They see themselves as failures and, at its worst, this can spiral out of control to helplessness and hopelessness. Those individuals who possess resilience have good problem-solving skills. They can accept responsibility for mess ups and not feel they are failures. They have an important adult in their corner. These characteristics are built through relationships and, as parents, we would hope that the primary relationship in our child’s life is the one with mom or dad.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard children tell me that their parents will “kill” them if they don’t score well on a college admissions test, or get into a specific college. I’ve had parents remove children from activities they enjoy because the parent feels a different activity is “more socially acceptable.” I once had a junior male student who had a hole in his schedule. I sat with him and gave him the only two courses available to fill that spot. He could not do it; he ended up turning to his mom, and she picked the class. Do I believe that she thought she was being a good mom? Yes, absolutely. But the reality was, this boy was so unsure of himself that he couldn’t even choose an elective class by himself. I found myself wondering how he would survive at college…or in life.
I received a great piece of advice when I took my daughter to college. The parents were gathered into a group while the kids were settling in. Our speaker said, “You are going to get a phone call one of these days, and your child will tell you of some challenge that’s facing them. Do them a favor…and you…and ask them, 'So, what are you going to do about it?’” I loved that advice, and I’ve used it over and over again in my personal and professional lives. When people are resilient, they can sit back and figure out an answer to that question. Developing that answer empowers them. It builds self-confidence, problem-solving skills, coping skills…it moves them from being a victim to a survivor. It’s critical to enhance resilience in our children and, in so doing, they will feel our unconditional love.
Acknowledge and Address Mental Illness: There are times when mental illness strikes. Depression and anxiety can take over the life of a previously happy individual. It can happen to our children. As with any type of illness, it’s critical that we acknowledge there is an issue and we get help. It’s also critical that we stay the course with that help until the medical professionals provide a release. With mental illness, people “get into their heads” and have a difficult time getting out. We need professionals to guide and advise us at those times. There may be a need for medication, or residential treatment. Don’t think you can avoid it; the results can be disastrous. Attending to these needs must be a first priority. I don’t care how many activities are coming up, how many social events, or sports events, or school events are on the horizon; if your doctor says a certain type of treatment is necessary, get it…and don’t let your child convince you otherwise. Ignoring it can lead to disaster and tragedy.
Know the warning signs of those contemplating suicide. Pay attention to your child’s demeanor, relationships, and behaviors. If your child has been struggling and, all of a sudden, s/he seems so much better, call a professional and have them assess the situation. If they start giving away favorite items, call a professional. If they make comments about “not being here” or “if/when I’m gone”, call a professional. At these times, we want our kids to be better so badly that we may be overlooking a telltale sign of suicidal intention. Get smart, be savvy, and watch like a hawk. There are so many resources out there…REACH OUT AND USE THEM.
If you suspect a depression or anxiety, please do not stick your head in the sand. Get help! Rarely is it something that you can deal with in-house. It’s an illness, and it’s serious. I think that sometimes people don’t want to admit there are issues because of how it “reflects on the family.” This isn’t about the family. This is about someone’s life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked not to tell people at school (i.e. teachers) that someone is getting outside help. That typically starts a very serious conversation about the fact that the school is here to help. If teachers know that a student is struggling, they can be more vigilant in their observations of that student. When kids are struggling, it’s important to have a team approach with as many sets of eyes upon them as possible. The more people holding the safety net the better.
This blog has been hard to write. I’ve struggled with it even though I have a lot of knowledge about this topic, and lots of experience with kids in distress. I don’t know how to put the urgency I feel about this topic into words. Love your kids for all of their differences and difficulties. Accept and love them for who they are. Teach them good problem solving skills from the time they are little, and empower them to solve life’s issues as they come up. Get the appropriate help for them when it’s needed, and seek out every possible resource. Watch, listen, learn, and act. Suicide is a very real problem amongst adolescents and teenagers. Let’s do everything we can to keep the nightmare from recurring.