This week is Suicide Prevention Week, designed to raise awareness of the warning signs that someone might be considering ending their life and honoring and remembering those who have. As a mother who has spent more hours than I care to remember in an emergency room while my child is assessed for whether he is an imminent harm to himself, this week is tough. It not only reminds me of the struggles my son has faced, but also how much more work there is to do to bring awareness, education and information to our community to end the silence surrounding the topic of suicide. I’m also reminded how lucky I am that my son is still with me after four psychiatric admissions for suicidal ideation.
There were the all too common warning signs leading up to each hospitalization. Each was marked by his increasing desperation and inability to manage his current struggles. He would become increasingly withdrawn, isolated, irritable and agitated. He often had trouble making the simplest decisions – what shirt to wear, whether he needed to take his coat to school, what cereal to eat for breakfast.
As I grew more in tune with the signs that signaled a pending mental health crises, I would encourage him to be proactive and get help before it resulted in a hospitalization. Sadly, he never took me up on that and each time the trip to the hospital was either by police car or ambulance. Once, I tried to convince his school resource officer to simply let me take him to the hospital in my car, believing that this would decrease his agitation and fear. I was kindly, but firmly, told that this would not be possible. She was so concerned about him that she wanted him to ride in her squad car where he couldn’t open the door from the back seat and jump out of the moving vehicle.
What I learned from these experiences is the importance of having hope for someone who is suicidal. This is not to suggest that someone can be talked out of what they are feeling by platitudes or false promises of better days. Their feelings - the desperation, the sadness, the hopelessness - are all too real to them. It does no good to try to convince them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They can’t see it. Or if they can see it, they are convinced it’s an oncoming train, barreling toward them.
But regardless, in the darkest moments when hope is simply not available, it is essential for them to know that someone in their life has hope for them. Even if we can’t relate or understand their desperation or pain, we can validate that we know those feelings are very real to them.
Like most lessons in life, I learned this the hard way. Just prior to my son’s third hospitalization for suicidal ideation, I lost my cool. He wasn’t being proactive. He knew he was spiraling downward, and like the stubborn child I’ve always known him to be, he was refusing intervention from his therapist and his doctor. The day before he ended up in the hospital again, he’d had a bad day at school resulting in consequences. I can’t even remember now what they were but I was angry and exhausted by the entire situation. In our most frustrating times as parents, when we’re as close to our wits end as we can possibly be, we do or say stupid things.
And I did both.
I threw my hands up and said “I give up! I don’t know what to do anymore!” I knew he was sliding down hill prior to this. I knew where we were headed. But either out of fear, frustration or anger – or all of the above – I let those feelings come out. And he heard them loud and clear.
The next day was the incident in which the school resource officer refused to let me drive him to the hospital myself because she was so concerned he’d jump out of the moving car. So instead, I watched as she led my son in handcuffs from his school to her waiting police car.
After a few days and a new medication, we attended a family therapy session at the hospital. My son said that when I threw my hands up and said I had given up, he decided that if I could give up, so could he. He said he always relied upon my belief that he could and would get better. I’d let him down that night. He understood my frustration and even my anger. But my giving up was almost like giving him permission to give up too.
That moment was a revelation for both of us. It showed me how important it was for him to have someone in his life who believed it wasn’t always going to be this bad.
Needless to say, I watch what I say now. He was just a young adolescent at that time and he’s matured quite a bit since then. We both recognize that I can’t always be that lifeline for him. He knows he needs to get help as soon as he starts to see his warning signs. It’s all a constant work in progress but he’s doing the work so that gives me hope.
One of the most dangerous warning signs exhibited when someone is contemplating ending their life is a sense of hopelessness and the belief that things will never get better. This week, as we think about how we can save lives of those we love, remember that sharing your hope until they again have it for themselves may make all the difference.