Preface: Four months ago I joined a club no one wants to join; I lost someone to suicide. Upon impact, the loss transformed my typically gregarious affect into a silent one, exuding the kind of silence you hear after a concert: muffled, fuzzy, dull. But behind that silence was a voice urging me to translate my life-altering pain into meaning. Even so, I found myself unable to turn ambition into action. And then, like the hand of God nudging me, I received a Twitter message from Rachel, a woman who came across an article of mine on social media. Her message read, “Hi Daniel. Any interest in writing an article about teenage suicide prevention?” I didn’t know Rachel. I didn’t ask any questions; I said yes.
Here are four ways to change the conversation about teenage mental health:
One: destigmatize mental illness by changing the way we (don’t) talk about it. When a child breaks their wrist, they don’t hide the cast. They aren’t made to feel ashamed, or embarrassed or different. Quite opposite, they heal in public. The process is celebratory; the exterior of a brightly colored cast is adorned with well-wishes and displays of support. Broken wrists in casts are in many ways a rite of passage. Trips, falls, breaks and casts are symbols of learning. Doctors explain the injury, highlighting the healing process, while families reflect on safer choices.
But when confronting mental health in children, our society behaves much differently. Children become silent sufferers, experiencing a hidden pain devoid of community-based optimism and public displays of support. In fact, many shield their child’s cast-needing mental health from view. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can embrace similar cast strategies when supporting our children through teenagedom. We can empower them to wear pain in hues bright enough to be seen. We can greet and treat their triggers with a sense of opportunism and grit. We can engage in open discourse about friendships, relationships, stress, depression, anxiety and coping skills. And when we do, we will clear channels through which destigmatized dialogue about mental health can flow. It’s time we view mental illness through the same lens as other illnesses.
Two: become a situational archaeologist. Archaeologists spend their days sifting through tepid terrain discovering and evaluating what’s below the Earth’s surface. Their discoveries provide a glimpse into our past and allow for a more successful future. The meticulous exertion of their digs is well worth the yield. We, too, can become archaeologists of a different kind. In order to truly understand teenagers, we too must dig. We can look below actions, appearances, words and choices to unearth true feelings. Teenage manifestations are excellent clues and foundational when acknowledged. But all too often these manifestations are ignored. In the spirit of archaeology, we should dig cautiously, proceed carefully, continue diligently and protect the integrity of our findings. One does not unearth a dinosaur with a jackhammer; the same is true with teenagers. While this process conflicts with our instant-access world, I assure you, it is worth the dig. We can become acutely aware of our teenagers and their schema; but if we choose to ignore, or simply treat surface level manifestations, we will be left with an epidemic that is both formidable and undeniably preventable. It’s our choice.
Three: become a lead learner: know the warning signs of suicide and educate those around you. Teenage suicide is real; it’s the second leading cause of death for persons aged 15-24. That statistic is alarming and unspeakably unnecessary. But we have the power to upend that statistic. In becoming better educated on mental health, we can more effectively disseminate information to our social circles. Sadly, many suicide warning signs exist in the space between everyday life; taken out of context they can be easily be overlooked. Bad grades, lack of sleep, detachment, careless eating, recklessness, emotional trauma, shedding possessions...all precursors to teenage suicide attempts. In our fast-paced world, these often slip through the cracks of consciousness and good intentions. It’s time we install pragmatic speed bumps to better heed warning signs, giving them the attention they require.
I can walk into an elementary school classroom and ask what to do if you catch on fire. In unison, they will shout, “Stop! Drop! And roll!” Why is it we teach our youth what to do in case they catch on fire, but we don’t universally teach them what to do when they inevitably will experience sadness, depression, isolation or anxiety. It’s time to change this, and together we can.
Four: commit to finding silver linings in every tragedy. In many ways, we see what we want to, when we want to. In sad times, that’s more true than ever. Dwelling is easy; it requires almost no work. Dwelling is an isolating experience; an inward process; a one-man show. Nothing loves this more than mental illness, which thrives on the principle of isolationism. So, despite tremendous personal pain, it is imperative we use pain to fuel our change-making, awareness-forming vehicle. In challenging times, we can choose to find beacons of hope. At first, tiny. Then, small. Then, noticeable. And finally, tangible. We have the power to use our memories of heartbreak, disappointment, abandonment or failure as pathways to connect with and protect the fragile mindset of teenagers. We can empower our silent sufferers, sign their casts, and support their journey through life’s landscape.
I leave you with this: non nobis solum nati sumus; not unto ourselves alone are we born. Join me in reframing the narrative of teenage mental health. Mental health needs a voice; we are that voice.
If you need support now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or, text “START” to 741-741 to get help 24/7 from the Crisis Text Line. If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation resources page.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and the information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.