Editor’s note: This article is day 2 of NeuroClastic’s partnership with BlackLivesMatter757 on #NoDejahVu #SelfieForSuicidePrevention campaign and is written in solidarity and support by Beth Tolley, who serves on the Board of Directors for NAMI Virginia. Featured image is a drawing of Dejah Jones. You can learn more about this campaign by clicking here.
My son Craig took his life when he was 15 years old. The devastation of his death and his continued physical absence in my life is beyond description.
Craig was a sweet, kind, smart, creative, loving child and teen. And he was a child who struggled with his thoughts and emotions. When he was seven years old, he began to have “rages” at home where he would scream at us and destroy property (electronics, glass doors on furniture, his walls).
He had several “labels” and diagnoses over the next 8 years, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, dissociative disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder.
My husband and I searched for answers to why our precious, loving son would suddenly have hateful rages. Craig was hospitalized eleven (11) times, sometimes for a day, one time for 3 months.
When he was in ninth grade, a three month stay in a psychiatric hospital was followed with three months at the United Methodist Family Services residential services, for a total of 6 months living away from home.
Things seemed to be worlds better for Craig and for our family after those 6 months. We had our first family vacation in years. Craig made many friends, good friends. He did well in his classes. He attended Homecoming and the Prom. He completed 10th grade without any further hospitalizations. He had a job. He learned to drive.
And yet, he continued to struggle with unwanted thoughts and emotions that made him feel like he was not in control of his life. He was struggling with the realization that he might be gay. My husband and I assured him that we loved and accepted him no matter whether he was gay or straight; however, this was the 90s when people were much less accepting. I can imagine that he was afraid of what others would say.
An Average Day with a Tragic Ending
A week after the end of his 10th grade school year, on a night that seemed no different from many other nights, Craig locked himself in his bedroom and ended his life.
Though he had talked about suicide from the time he was very young, and we worried about the possibility, nothing could have prepared us for the harsh, final reality of him killing himself. We didn’t know until later that Craig had called ROSMY, an organization for youth to safely discuss sexuality and gender, the day that he died.
A Journey to Understand
In the 22 years since Craig’s death, I have learned a lot about mental health, mental illness, the neuroscience of brain development and functioning, and about effective and ineffective ways of supporting children and young adults.
I’ve learned so much more about neurodiversity, including autism and ADHD especially from neurodivergent adults. I have seen the unnecessary toll the deficit model of disability and an ableist perspective take on so many individuals.
I’ve worked through the devastation of his suicide to get to the point that I can remember all the good times– all the joy Craig brought to our life and all that he taught us. Our compassion expanded as we learned so much from working hard to be the best parents we could be for Craig.
That said, I can still be transported to the terror of that night and to the enormous ache of Craig’s absence.
In Search of Insights Toward Prevention
I have considered over the years what I could do differently and what I could say to others that may be helpful in preventing suicide. Here’s where I am:
1. I would encourage parents, grandparents, guardians, and all persons important in the child/teen’s life to love them unconditionally. Do that by avoiding methods of addressing behavioral concerns that involve rewards and consequences – because these methods tell kids that they are loved only if they do what the adults want them to.
2. Reject the deficit model of disabilities and differences. Embrace the social model of disability: what makes someone disabled is not their medical condition, but the attitudes and structures of society.
3. Develop, invest in your relationship with your children/teens. Listen, listen, then listen some more. Listen to understand what they enjoy, who their friends are, what they are proud of, what scares them. Kids are quick to feel dismissed if they don’t feel heard; and kids don’t feel heard if they are not given full attention and if their communication is met with judgement, vague advice, dismissal, and toxic positivity rather than empathy and support.
4. Be prepared to calmly and supportively discuss topics that perhaps were forbidden topics when you were growing up and topics that may make you uncomfortable.
5. Parents, along with all teachers, principals, and anyone in positions that impact other human beings need a basic understanding of the neuroscience of brain functioning. This is important to know how best to support an individual depending on their current brain state. Someone who is in a survival mode.
That is to say, their brain/body regulatory system has detected real or perceived danger which results in the most primitive part of the brain “being in charge” does not have access to the most developed part of the brain that is responsible for thinking, planning, impulse control and other complex cognitive skills.
Reasoning with a person in this state is pointless. Kids, teens, and adults need to know that they are safe, they are loved, and they have been heard. They need to know that if they will be accepted by their parents and loved ones for who they are, whether that includes neurodiversity, a different gender identity or sexuality, or something as simple as a different life goal or path from what you had anticipated.
Suggestions for Supportive Care
To support mental health and prevent suicide, I offer that following suggestions based a combination of experience and research.
1. Love your child with all your heart and soul – unconditionally. Do not be swayed by advice that doesn’t feel right to you. Invest your time in developing your relationship, into being truly present with your child, to understanding your child and assuring that they feel seen, soothed, safe and secure.
2. Keep the lines of communication open. As part of the relationship, discuss “hard topics.” Your child needs to know that no matter how much they screw up (or think they screw up), your love is more powerful than anything they could do. You will be there for them.
3. Know your child/teen. Embrace who they are, whether they are gay, straight, trans, autistic, nonspeaking— whatever they define as their true selves. Focus on their interests, their strengths.
4. If you see signs of depression, withdrawal, behavior changes, talk with your child, expressing what you see, why it concerns you. Ask how you can be of help to your child.
5. If you think your child is considering suicide, ask them. “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” “Do you have a plan? What is your plan?”
These cannot be taboo conversations. The ability to calmly ask these questions without expressing fear, judgment, or other intense negative emotions provides the opportunity to understand what your child is feeling – and where you can go (together) from there.
See the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) for more guidance.
- My Son Took His Life at 15. Here’s What I’ve Learned. #NoDejahVu - September 7, 2020