And questions from Cosby high school health students answered.
For college and high school mental health and suicide prevention presentations, I start by telling the story of my youngest son, Charles, who suffered from depression, then addiction and died by suicide.
So the first one-third is my story
How did it all happen? What was he like? Why did he default to drug use? I talk about the cultural differences between my generation and theirs acknowledging the amount of content that comes at them daily.
Next one-third is how our family coped with the grief
I talk about how each person in our family coped with the loss of Charles and show a video of how his older brother, Richard answers the question, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Each of us had our different ways to manage the pain of the loss by suicide.
I throw in some funny videos and one of their classmates dons a Dr. Seuss hat and reads some seuss-like poem I wrote about rooting for oneself. It’s silly and bouncy but gets the point across and they need a break from the intensity of the subject. I do, too.
The last one-third is coping skills
This is an interactive exercise on coping skills.
Life is never perfect and we run into roadblocks, speed bumps, and land mines. And we also have moments of joy both large and small. How are we going to handle those earth-shattering moments? We are all going to have them and we need to know how we might cope with adversity.
So I ask the students to fill out a post-it note with one problem they have dealt with and put it on the whiteboard. Just one. I have a list to give them an idea of what I’m looking for.
We are all moved to tears at this part
Those who’ve been keeping some tough secrets reveal them anonymously and then they see how others in the class, their peers sitting right next to them, are dealing with some of the same very big issues. It’s a eureka moment for all of us and I feel it in the room.
Then we talk about coping strategies. What are unhealthy coping strategies? What are healthy coping strategies? They come up with the ideas. I only ask questions to facilitate and help them arrive at the conclusions.
The one criteria I want them to consider: Will this strategy benefit you long term?
There are some amazing answers and participation.
I end with my very favorite story about Charles and how he reached out to others. He had more wisdom than I ever gave him credit for. I’m sorry he had to die for me to see it.
Before they leave, I ask them to write and take with them one coping strategy and leave with me, one thing they learned.
I wish I could post all of them. They are so good.
Answers to the student questions from Cosby High School
So these are the questions the students I spoke to had for me.
Does therapy actually work? I feel like if I was to go I’d just be spilling out my heart while some person stares at me blankly…..
First, thank you for asking and I’ll make this a blog post all its own. Your concerns are valid and others have the same misgivings about therapy. I think first is attitude. Believing that you will find a strategy or a good therapist and understanding it’s part of an overall plan. If you go in there expecting someone to “fix” you and not doing any work on yourself, you will be disappointed. That “I’m not giving up,” attitude is critical and hard to find when you are depressed. So acknowledging that you might need help to find the right individual is also crucial.
The part about finding a good fit in regards to a therapist is a royal pain. But once you do, it can be very rewarding and help you work things out. The idea of therapy is to help you help yourself and giving you the tools that work for you.
Other options are support groups. NAMI has a ton of them locally and nationally. Groups work best for me but at one time my husband and I had a counselor and we also went to a support group.
Like any profession there are good and bad counselors and so so ones in between.
What advice do you feel like Charles would give right now?
That’s a tough one. I think he’d say be true to yourself and follow your passion. He asked me once, “Mom are you following your passion?” I hesitated and then he said, “If you are taking that long to answer, you aren’t. You should follow your heart,” said the child with the world’s biggest heart.
Do you think Charles was more ashamed or hid the way he felt [depression and thoughts of suicide] because he had so many friends?
It might be. He did hide it from his closest childhood friends because he was embarrassed he had become addicted to heroin. The phrase “heroin addiction” drips with shame and failure.
But it’s my feeling, he hid it because he was ashamed of his thoughts of suicide and struggled with culturally-accepted ways for an empathetic young man to express his pain. In his case it was rap. He had some good coping strategies. Unfortunately, his drug use upended them and he fell down the dark hole of addiction.
What is the one thing you’d tell someone who is contemplating suicide?
“Tell me more. I’m here to listen and I’m not going anywhere.” If you want to know more of what you should say, go here. If you really want to know the steps of being more suicide alert, look for classes of safeTALK, suicide alertness for everyone. I and other trainers in the area teach this class.
Do you think mental illness will ever lose its taboo?
Yes. There have been big changes since I’ve been involved with the topic in 2010. And I think it’s the younger generation, the high schools and colleges to whom I speak that will spark that change. But all of us have to start talking about it by talking openly without shame. And it will be a few at first, then more and then it will become the norm.
I remember when my aunt took me in a room and whispered she had breast cancer. Back then you didn’t dare breathe a word about breast cancer in public. That was the seventies. Today people run races with t-shirts that say, “Save the ta-tas.” If it can happen for breast cancer, it can happen with mental illness.
How do you get through the day? (Assuming they were asking me or asking themself how they get through each day. So I’ll do both.)
So how do I get through the day? At first, it was so brutal I couldn’t fathom living through the pain. I would curl up in the bottom of the shower crying and bang on the walls. But I told myself that as bad as it was right then, it would never be as bad as getting the news of my son’s suicide. That part was over and it would never hurt that much again. And if I survived that, I could survive anything. I wrote my way through grief. That’s why there are thousands of posts here and I wrote a book. That worked for me and helped me find healing. Giving back does, too. When I give back, it feels good and it gets me out of my own head. Some time in grief is fine but too much is detrimental to my own mental health. I have to connect with others face to face, get outside, get exercise.
So how does a teen get through the day? Limit your tech and social media. Start small and set a timer or leave your phone away from you (in another room for example) to give your mind a break. Messages coming at you 24/7 is difficult for anyone to manage, it’s impossible when you are a teenager because all those executive functions have not developed. So minimize exposure, get sleep (don’t take the phone to bed) and connect more with others face to face. Take moments of breathing or mindfulness. This can be just taking a moment to walk outside and stay in the present moment.
“…IF YOU MAKE IT THROUGH TODAY,
YOU CAN MAKE IT THROUGH THE NEXT”
——RAP SONG: FIND BEAUTY BY CHARLES AUBREY ROGERS