There are a lot of resources for parents talking to their children about suicide — but not many in reverse.
Content warning: suicidal ideation
I don’t remember the first time my dad and I talked about his mental health. What I do remember are the afternoons when I would come home from a day of high school around 3 or 4pm and find that his bedroom door was still closed. At 17, I was more than capable of feeding myself — in fact, I learned how to cook specifically to avoid eating my dad’s ham dinners — but I’d still stare at the doorknob, wondering if he would ever wake up again. That closed door represented a series of questions: Is he feeling depressed today? Is he depressed enough to die?
My mom died (not by suicide) when I was 11, and my worst fear was also losing my dad. Even before we talked explicitly about his mental illnesses, I worried about my dad ending his own life. He used the phrase “I’m not feeling good” to indicate mental as well as physical health, and when he was going through a particularly depressive or anxious episode, he’d often sleep long and irregular hours. I might find him picking out a snack in the kitchen at 2am, but at dinnertime, he’d be fast asleep. He sometimes missed work in his regular job as a cab driver for weeks at a time if he was in a depressive episode, and if I brought up stressful conversations right before he went to bed, it triggered his anxiety attacks and night terrors. I could always tell when he was feeling particularly depressed and anxious, because he wasn’t as lively and funny, and turned down my offers to take long walks or play board games, two of our favorite ways to bond.
The scariest part for me was that I didn’t know how to best support him. Should I ask outright if he was suicidal? Would bringing up suicidal thoughts or depression make him even sadder? Should I seek the help of another adult, or ask him to see a therapist? My fears were rooted not only in the personal, but in the societal. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and dads are particularly at risk; more three times more men than women die by suicide.
There are a lot of resources for parents talking to their children about suicide, but not many in reverse. And because of the stigma associated with mental illness and the very real threat to parents in losing custody of their children, many parents don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health with their kids.
Dealing with a parent’s suicidal thoughts, especially when you’re younger, can be very stressful. I worried about the logistical consequences of a suicide, like who would take care of me if my dad died, whether I’d be able to pay our household bills on my own as a high school student, and how I could pick up the slack if my dad’s depression made it hard for him to work or do household chores like cleaning dishes. I didn’t want to add to my dad’s problems, and wondered whether I should ask my dad if he’d consider getting help.
Nikki Sewell, a licensed social worker who has worked in mental health for 10 years, suggests that children can steer their parent toward professional help if they see signs of suicidal behavior, like drastic changes in sleeping or eating patterns or a parent who’s explicitly talking about hurting themselves. She says people should avoid using “shoulds” and react without judgment, because telling someone how they should feel won’t make them feel that way. “Stay in contact with your parent regularly about how they’re feeling and how their treatment is going,” she says.
For their part, parents need to be wary about using age-appropriate language during any discussions that take place. Rachel Kazez, a therapist and founder of All Along, thinks that parents need to be careful about setting boundaries, especially with children under 18, but even with their adult children. She says it varies based on the parent-child relationship and specific circumstances, but that generally parents need to be careful about upsetting the balance in their role in a position of power. Parents have to be responsible for the kid’s well-being, and not overshare excessively or in an age-inappropriate way. It’s easy for kids to adopt the caretaker role, so she urges people who know their parents are suicidal to remember that they can’t control how their parent feels. “I think that kids can seek some support of their own, whether it’s a therapist, or a friend, which might include asking somebody to help their parents get some help,” she says.
Some parents feel that they’re able to better support their own children who may be dealing with mental health issues because they’ve been through it themselves. Myisha T, a mental health activist and life and business strategist, doesn’t talk in-depth to her kids about her suicidal attempt, but when her children have expressed their own mental health issues, she’s opened up to help them see they aren’t alone. “I always tell them, ‘When you feel like you can’t live, what do you do?’” she says.
Kathy Haan, an international business mentor, agrees. “I had a very candid conversation with [my children] last week, explaining a little bit more about what I went through, and how no matter what their situation is, no matter how bad they feel, or how much trouble they think they’re in, I am here to help them judgment-free. I’m much more empathetic and quick to create a safe space for candid discussions about the big, scary things like suicide and depression.”
Every conversation I remember having with my dad about mental health, at least when I was still under 18, was centered around my own. When I was in high school, I was concerned about a friend of mine potentially attempting suicide — and one of my dad’s first questions was if I ever thought about ending my own life. Kazez suggests that it can be beneficial for parents to bring up suicide in these types of contexts, particularly if the child or teen is dealing with their own suicidal thoughts or mental health issues. “It could be powerful for the parent to say, ‘I think about that sometimes too, and here’s how I deal with that. Do those things work for you?’” she says.
It can be powerful for suicidal parents to remember that even though they have children of their own, they need to take care of themselves. It’s like the oxygen mask scenario on a plane: If you don’t put the mask on yourself first, you can’t help anyone else. Alice, who’s in her mid-fifties and lives in the Southwest, has dealt with suicidal thoughts her entire life. “You’re tired of dealing with the pain, you’re tired of dealing with the rejection,” she says about her struggles with suicidal thoughts. Her children are adults now, and last year, she tried to end her life. After surviving, she found immersive self-care to be the best treatment option for her.
“It helps me to get by from one day to the next day,” Alice says. “I’m living for me.” She practices radical self-love on a daily basis, which she describes as giving herself the love she never felt she got from her own parents, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
According to Sewell and Kazez, it’s also critical for people to practice self-care when they’re supporting someone who’s suicidal. Last year, my dad tried to die by suicide for the first time in my life. After I made sure he was safe and in the hospital recovering, I took two days off work to take care of myself. I scheduled an emergency appointment with my therapist, took a walk on the beach, and made plans with some close friends. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to support him through this if I couldn’t even get through the day without breaking down. “When struggling with intense stressors in life, it’s so easy to let things slide,” says Sewell. “But whatever self-care routine is in place, stick with it.”
Melissa Blake, a freelance writer and blogger whose dad died by suicide, supported her mom emotionally after her dad’s death, but also made it a priority to help herself. “I’ve learned that it’s so important to take proper care of yourself in the wake of such a devastating loss,” she says. “One of the things that’s helped me the most has been writing.” People with suicidal parents might also turn to therapy, or to resources such as Families for Depression Awareness, National Alliance on Mental Illness (which offers family support groups), the National Institute of Mental Health, or the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
Immediately after my dad’s suicide attempt — and many times over the years — I blamed myself for his poor mental health. It was easy to fall down a rabbit hole of “What if” situations. When I saw my dad after his attempt, wearing a light blue hospital gown under bright fluorescent lights, he looked so small. I’d spent my childhood sitting on top of his shoulders as he carried me through the world; I had never thought about a time when I might have to carry him. I wanted to swoop in and do everything for him to magically fix the situation. My therapist reminded me that I have no control over anyone else’s life but my own, and all I can do is try my best to support the people I care about.
While I was organizing my dad’s belongings to take some to him in the hospital, I also realized how angry I was with him for trying to end his life. I gave myself a few extra days before I talked to him over the phone, because I knew it wouldn’t be productive to make him feel guilty.
“When someone is suicidal, they’re not thinking about leaving you,” says Lilly Dancyger, a writer from New York City whose mother attempted suicide when Lilly was a teenager. “They’re not thinking rationally at all, and whatever pain they’re feeling is bigger than the abstract fear of leaving you. It’s hard to not take it personally, but you have to try.”
A year after my dad’s suicide attempt, he’s living in Florida with friends and working hard to find a treatment plan and lifestyle that works for him. We talk on a regular basis and I provide a supportive, listening ear — and I’m happy to help him out if he needs assistance opening a checking account, for example — but it’s also his responsibility to tend to his own mental health needs.
The other day, he ended our phone conversation with, “I miss you.” I miss him too — and I’m grateful that he’s still around to miss.
Alaina Leary is a queer, disabled publishing professional and intersectional feminist activist living in Boston, Massachusetts. www.alainaleary.com.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.