There are a lot of things I am passionate about – spirituality, self-love, self-care – and I am passionate about them because they all have helped me manage my mental illness. Spirituality helps remind me that I am part of this amazing Universe. Self-love reminds me that I am worthy. Self-care reminds me to take care of myself and ask for help when I’m in a bad place.
Anxiety and depression have been part of my life since I was 11 or 12. My very first journal has entries about wishing I could just disappear. About wanting to be a fashion designer but feeling like I was too fat and ugly so I was just going to be a librarian. (Sorry to all the librarians out there.) I got in trouble all throughout middle school for missing too many days because more often than not I’d wake up with debilitating stomach aches caused by anxiety. They’d always go away once I didn’t have to go to school. Sometimes I wondered if I was making them up, even though they felt real. There was a visit to the doctor and he gave me an antacid to take every morning. I don’t remember being told it was anxiety, but that’s exactly what it was. (You can read more on my story in my workbook Breathe.)
My anxiety got steadily worse and so did my depression. When I was 14, I threatened to kill myself if I had to go to school for 10th grade and my mom gave in and homeschooled me. I don’t know if she thought I was just being dramatic or didn’t know how to help me –
but there was never really a conversation about me threatening to kill myself.
I got homeschooled for a year and then it was back to High School. Prom and graduation didn’t happen for me because I skipped them, and had my diploma mailed to me. I had one friend that I didn’t like very much – she once told me I had fat arms and I never forgave her- and I felt so alone, constantly. My depression got even worse and suicide was a constant thought in my mind. I remember sitting in the bathtub and fantasizing about it. I remember thinking about opening the door and jumping out of moving cars.
And all of that was my normal. But it wasn’t normal.
I’m surprised I made it out of my teenage years alive. No one really saw what I was going through and if they did, they didn’t say anything. I had this idea that I was crazy and that if people knew I would get locked up in a mental institution and that became an honest anxiety of mine for a very long time. Outside of my introversion, there weren’t a lot of outward signs of my depression. I got good grades, I smiled and looked happy in public, I didn’t act out in school, I was just your typical wallflower who wanted to shrivel up and die.
That’s why I want you to have a talk with your teen.
Sit down and talk about mental illness. Make that conversation normal. Make it easy and make it something that your kid can talk to you about without fear of being shamed, ridiculed, or minimized.
When they’re little we talk about the danger of strangers to protect them. When they’re older we talk about safe sex because we want them to be healthy and responsible.
Discussion on depression needs to be brought to the table.
It needs to be talked about. We need to teach our children about mental health because we want them to be protected, safe, and healthy. Even if your kid is the happiest, most well-adjusted, teen you’ve ever met – talk about it. Depression isn’t just triggered by bad events and traumatic experiences but hormones and chemical imbalances that can affect anyone. And it is treatable. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence and for way too many kids that is exactly what it is.
Have a discussion about healthy moods. Describe what depression is and ask them if that’s something they feel sometimes or all of the time.
Have a code word. It’s so awkward to say “Hey mom, I’m thinking about suicide today.” It seems impossible to say, it really does. Those words just won’t come out sometimes. Create a code word or phrase that your teen can text you or say to you.
If they say this word maybe it means you call into work and keep them home from school and you spend time with each other in a space where you can have a healthy conversation and figure out what’s going on. Or maybe you go outside away from the rest of the family to talk privately.
Ask them how they cope with strong emotions. Make sure they’re developing healthy coping mechanisms early on like writing, art, physical activity, talking to their friends.
Be loving and supportive and most of all reassuring. If they need hospitalization for severe suicidal thoughts or depression remind them that staying in the hospital is just something that’s going to help them feel better. Reinforce over and over and over again that whatever they are feeling does not make them hopeless or broken.
Share your own struggles. Be relatable. Share what depression or anxiety looked like for you so that they are able to recognize it in themselves.
Looking back I see so many things in my mom that were the cause of anxiety or depression and that I then adopted as “normal”. Kids pick up on so many things and that’s why it’s important for you to take care of your mental health too.
Explain to them that depression isn’t something that you ignore but also don’t treat it like it’s cancer. It’s no different than taking them to the doctor for a cold or to the dentist for a cleaning. It’s part of total wellness, sometimes things get knocked out of whack so we get help to fix them. Approach topics like therapy in a way that makes it sound like a casual thing. Normalize mental health, therapy, and medications.
Talk about suicide.
Let your child know that if they’re struggling to cope with overwhelming feelings – you are there. And if they don’t want you there – give them other resources. I made this printable that shows teen-specific suicide prevention information. Print it out and hang it on your fridge, give it to your kid during “the talk”. ((Download it here))
-Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
-Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18.
-More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
-Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.*
We need to talk about it.