I do not have permission to share the letters I get from people who are hurting or ones that parents send me from their children with details of their depression and how worthless they feel. They are intensely personal. But I can share similarities I see in most of them.
They often refer to cutting or other self destructive behavior–alcohol, drugs, eating disorders are common symptoms. Every one of them mentions feeling worthless, many with a mirror metaphor. “I look in the mirror and I feel so worthless.”
Most of the letters are naked and raw emotional accounts and confessions of depression and suicidal thoughts that they cannot escape–nighttime being a fearful and lonely time for most of them.
All of them fear exposure and rejection as a result of the darkness in their souls and are ashamed of writing the message.
So what do you do if you get one of these letters?
1. First, thank God that you got the letter
I’d have given ANYTHING to get such a letter outlining in detail how my son felt and his fear of killing himself. This is a gift, a chance that you need to be thankful for once you quiet your out-of-control heartbeat. Feel lucky. Feel relieved that you now know the root of the behavior you have seen that you couldn’t figure out.
2. Tell your child that they have just demonstrated amazing courage
Imagine how hard it would be to share your most painful secrets with another human being? Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable. Instead of following through with awful things their brain is telling them to do, they poured their heart out to you. This takes enormous courage.
3. Listen with compassion
Do not lecture. Do not panic. Do not invalidate their feelings. Invalidating would be, “You shouldn’t feel depressed. You have everything to live for!”
4. Get help. For your child and you
You are not going to personally solve this problem. You are not qualified. Your job is to get your child to the next step of care to get help and usually that is a suicide assessment. Many areas can do this by phone or in person. Emergency rooms, state mental health agencies (department of behavioral health), and behavioral health hospitals do these. Your loved one was brave to tell you and the next step is to let you help them help themselves.
One way to figure out what your next step is is to call the suicide hotline with your child if possible 1-800-273-8255. Or a local crisis line (your state mental health agency usually has one.) Be patient with this process. It’s not perfect.
For national hotlines, they often want to connect you to an operator in your state. If you get push back from your child, you remind him they wrote the letter to get help and this is the next step. Never promise to keep this a secret from mental health professionals. and let your child know you are with them as a partner for support and you’ll figure it out together.
Then get help for you, too. NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, has support groups for families.
5. Follow up with an appointment for your child
In some cases, they might need a psych hospital or the ER if those feelings are eminent. That’s where the hotline comes in. They can help you assess the situation and figure out your next step.
It can be awkward for your child after they make this very personal confession. Parents get paranoid and want to know every minute how their child is feeling. I understand this fear. But you have to pull back some. They feel invaded and uncomfortable after their confession and are typically not that anxious to discuss it.
It’s probably a good idea to get some mental health training. SafeTalk Training or Mental Health First Aid. Suicidal thoughts are usually the result of a mental illness and typically don’t just get cured.
This is not a fix-all guide but just outlines how you can respond to a message or letter sent to you by your child.
Other Helpful Articles:
- NAMI Family Group Support Locator
- Free eBook- 9 Ways to Help Your Kids Build Resilience (12 pages)
- Your child said he is suicidal: Say this, not that (quick easy guide)
- How one teen described his suicidal episode
- So why do kids not tell parents they are suicidal? Quotes from real kids
- 6 reasons why kids don’t tell you they want to die
- He promised not to attempt suicide again
- ‘My son has admitted he is suicidal. What do I do now?’
- They said they’re thinking of suicide? What now?
- Living in fear of the next crisis
- To those who think, ‘I’m not qualified to talk to someone who is suicidal’
- A friend posted a message online that sounds suicidal. What do you do or say?
- Suicide Resources Page