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Why Belonging Is a Key to Suicide Prevention

What I’m doing to make sure one child feels like he belongs.

When you write about suicide prevention all year long, September is a high-pressure month. It’s Suicide Prevention Month, September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, and there’s a whole week where people are filling social media with suicide prevention messages. A lot of pressure. I wasn’t sure I could really do my best this year, despite having a lot to say and some good possibilities:

  • What does it mean that, again, just like when Robin Williams died, suicide was a topic that moved everyone to conversation and reflection in the wake of Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths?
  • How can some college campuses be doing such an abysmal job responding to students with mental health needs?
  • What can we do about the fact that suicide rates are up 25% since 1999?

But I have been distracted. My son started kindergarten last week and although he has been in daycare since he was three months old and then preschool the past couple of years, this transition was different.

For the past several months, my son has been wearing dresses. He chooses his dresses and is most comfortable in dresses. He has a “boy” haircut, wears “boy” underwear, and identifies as a boy. In fact, he becomes quite confused when people mistake him for a girl.

Just to give you a sense, this exchange took place at the National Building Museum right after a docent greeted my son by saying, “Well hello there, young lady!”

Isaac: “Why did that man think I was a girl?””

Me: “Well, because you are wearing a dress.”

A pink, floral, ruffly, quite pretty dress.

Dresses are his thing, so much so that I often don’t recognize him if he is wearing typical boy clothes. So much so that his sister, who also wears dresses, says, “These are my dresses. And these are Isaac’s dresses.” It is completely normal for Isaac to wear dresses.

To us.

To the rest of the world, Isaac looks quite different. Many people think he’s a girl. Many people stop and stare. Some people compliment him — actually, this happens more often than you might imagine. Quite a few people think that it’s pretty cool that he wears dresses. I think those people must be an awful lot like me.

Let me just get to it. The reason I am okay with my son wearing dresses is because my father died by suicide. I am okay with my son wearing dresses because suicide prevention is my business. It is completely normal for Isaac to wear dresses because I know, for a fact, that people die by suicide because they feel that they do not belong. They feel that they are a burden to others. They feel alone, desperately. They feel unaccepted, that there is no place for them in this world and that the world and their families would be better off without them.

I am committed to doing what I can to prevent suicide and to promote mental health, on a micro scale and on a macro scale. I raise money for organizations that work on suicide prevention research. I advocate for policies that allow people better access to mental health care. I give advice that I hope helps people make good choices for their own mental health care and for the care of those they love. And, I let my son be who he is.

I want to raise a child who knows that his parents love him and accept him, even in a world that is often not loving nor accepting. I want to be the kind of parent who doesn’t let her own anxieties and fears get in the way of her children becoming the people they deserve to be. (This, especially, after my three-year-old told me that I am “freaking her out” when she is on the potty and that is why she is not potty training!) I am making this choice knowing that it means I need to prepare my children for what it means to live “you do you” in the world—that people may be mean, that they may try to hurt you, that they may make you wish you could just be ordinary.

A few months ago, I took my son to a drag show. (I know, now you are really questioning my legitimacy, but it was a drag show put on at a synagogue specifically for kids and families and, for the most part, it was really kid-friendly—think less sexy, more playful.) What I wanted him to see was that there were other people who identify as male who wear dresses and that they were being celebrated—cheered on, actually—for doing so. (What he noticed: One of the drag queens looked like a character in the new Beauty and the Beast.)

When we talked about it as we walked home, I shared my rationale with him, that I thought it would be good for him to see other males wearing dresses.

To me, he said, “Mom, they’re just clothes.”

I literally stopped before I took my next step, held back my tears, and said back to him, “Isaac, you’re so right. They’re just clothes.”

The reason he wants to wear dresses? These are his words: “I don’t want to be ordinary.”

I mean, who wants to be ordinary? Ordinary is great for many days. It helps you get by. It helps you stay employed, make some friends, maybe find a partner. But, it does not help you be the Greatest of All Time. It does not help you write a prize-winning novel. Create TV shows that change the way people think about themselves. Uncover truths that others wish were kept hidden. Take risks that allow for others to be free.

Can I tell you? I am thrilled that I have a child who doesn’t want to be ordinary. I have chills thinking about who this child could become.

I am holding back tears thinking of what he will go through to get there.

What can you do this month to prevent suicide?

Here are ideas, backed by research, presented by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1.800.273.8255).


Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks after them in a caring way. Findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal ideation.

Keep Them Safe

A number of studies have indicated that when lethal means are made less available or less deadly, suicide rates by that method decline, and frequently suicide rates overall decline.

Be There

Individuals are more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed, and more hopeful after speaking to someone who listens without judgment.

Help Them Stay Connected

Studies indicate that helping someone at risk create a network of resources and individuals for support and safety can help them take positive action and reduce feelings of hopelessness.

Follow Up

Studies have also shown that brief, low cost intervention and supportive, ongoing contact may be an important part of suicide prevention, especially for individuals after they have been discharged from hospitals or care services.

Copyright 2018 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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