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Talking to My College-Bound Son About Suicide

A Personal Perspective: To be heard, we have to say the words out loud.

He rolled his eyes when I said it, but I knew it had to be discussed. There was too much in the news to ignore. A soccer player at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country had died by suicide, and her parents were left giving a heartbreaking interview on television, saying they had no idea how this could have happened. A football player at one of the top programs in the country announced he was quitting football before it was too late to focus on his mental health. And here I was, the psychologist mom, watching her high school senior eat breakfast, knowing he was leaving for college in the fall, and recognizing the urgent need to promote mental strength and wellness before he left and to tell him everything I wanted to be sure he heard.

In graduate school, we were taught to never put off asking about suicide in the first session, and supervision helped alleviate concerns that a new therapist might have. And while I am more comfortable asking those questions during therapy and assessment, there always seems to be a difference in talking about suicide when it comes to your own kids. We have had difficult conversations with our teenage sons over the years, openly talking about suicide, mental health, mood, and behavior. But being faced with impending college, I wanted to be sure I covered enough before he left, even if they were tough conversations.

So what did I want to tell my teenage son about suicide before he went off into the world on his own?

1. It's OK to not be OK.

This phrase has been growing in popularity as we, as a society, recognize and increasingly value mental health. But it really is true and needs to be emphasized to everyone, especially teenage sons. As parents, we need to normalize all feelings so that our sons are willing to admit when they feel sad, mad, nervous, happy, or any other emotion.

Feelings don't have to equate with actions, so our sons need to know that there is nothing wrong with feeling a certain way. We can be sure that our sons know that feeling a certain way does not mean you have to act a certain way.

2. It's OK to ask for help. And sometimes you have to.

In parenting, we try to anticipate what our children need starting on day one. The teenage years can be tricky to navigate for parents of boys because they may no longer demonstrate what they need and can appear foreign or quiet or shut down. As our sons grow and mature, we may not be able to correctly interpret how they feel, so we can tell them it is OK to ask for help directly. They may not respond immediately, but parents need to make sure their sons know how to ask for help and express what they feel in a way that is heard.

pexels / Ricardo Esquivel
Source: pexels / Ricardo Esquivel

3. There are always other options.

It is often said that suicide is a permanent solution to what can be seen as a temporary problem. The problem itself may not feel temporary and may seem all-encompassing, but it needs to be stressed to our sons that there is always another option. I want my own sons to know that, as college students, life and decisions can seem overwhelming, but they always have an option and an out, even if it involves changing their location or situation.

4. I will always be here.

The devastation experienced by parents when a child dies is impossible to ignore. I want to make it emphatically clear to my own sons that I will be here no matter what happens and will help them no matter what the situation. As parents, it is natural to assume our sons know we will be here for them, but watching my son prepare himself for college, I want to make it explicitly clear that he can always reach out, he can always come home, even in the darkness, while we still anticipate the brightest light and greatness for him.

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