The month of May is dedicated to mental health awareness. According to Jeffrey Bridge, epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, "Suicide rates in the U.S. have historically been higher among white individuals across all age groups. We were very surprised to see higher suicide rates among black children over time." As a parent this is an alarming revelation and one of my greatest fears.
This time last year I was in the midst of a very painful break up. My ex-boyfriend and I were living together in a home with my teenage son and his 6 year old son. We had known since January that the split was coming but for the sake of the boys we postponed telling them as long as we could. Our lease on the house ended in May.
A move meant that my son would be transferring schools and losing friends he had made in his freshman year of high school, already a very stressful year of transition. I told him in the beginning of April what was going on but he didn't show much emotion. He just said, "Its okay Mom; I really didn't like that school much anyway." And that was that, or so I thought.
Not long after, I started to get messages about him not being at school. He would make up excuses about them accidentally marking him absent which I reluctantly believed at first. He had never done anything in the past to make me doubt that he was telling the truth. After about the 4th time I had had enough. I set up the tracking software on his phone to tell me exactly where he was.
One morning I checked the tracker and it showed that he was at home. I left work and went to the house and what I found when I walked in the door is an image that still haunts me.
I found my 15 year old son, one of the toughest, strongest, bravest kids I've ever known, sitting in the middle of the living room floor sobbing uncontrollably. He didn't even look startled when I walked in the room. He just sat there crying.
So many thoughts were racing through my mind. I thought someone had hurt him or done something terrible to him. When I asked him what was wrong all he could say was that he was sad. He said something was wrong inside of him and he was unhappy.
What do you say to that when your teenage son says "something is wrong inside of him." I didn't know what to do. I asked him if he wanted to hurt himself and he said no. That was a relief. There's no parent handbook on how to respond to an emotionally distraught teenage boy in this situation.
I knew one thing for certain. I would not discount his feelings or write him off as not knowing what he is talking about. I would not ignore his audible and visible pleas for help. I would not tell him that 'boys don't cry' or to 'suck it up' or perpetuate any of the other ridiculous chauvinistic sayings that our society, especially in the black community, tells us about men not being able to freely express emotion. I would not stifle his humanity in such a way.
To say that I was worried is an understatement. I was terrified. There have been so many cases reported of teens who have taken their own lives and the parents had no idea that anything was wrong. I remember my first experience as a teenager of knowing a boy around my age who took his own life. His mother used to do my hair and I was friends with his sister. Their hurt and their anguish from all those years ago sprang to the forefront of my mind. I would not - I could not lose my baby boy that way.
I called my boyfriend and he rushed home from work to be with us. He too was baffled at my son's behavior. My son finally opened up and he told us that he was sad that our family was splitting up and he was hurting because he couldn't understand why he couldn't have a "normal family." He said he felt like there was something wrong with him and that's why his dad, who hadn't been consistent in his life, didn't really love him and that's why my boyfriend, who had been a constant father figure in his life for almost 4 years, was also abandoning him.
That hurt both of us deeply. The magnitude of our decision couldn't be denied. Our break up had absolutely nothing to do with either of our children and yet here was this adolescent child carrying the weight of guilt and pain because of something we were doing. We could not have predicted he would take this so hard.
After that I let him stay home from school and we left and went to Disney for the rest of the day. I just wanted him to get away from all of it and decompress. We all need sanity breaks, even our kids.
Later that evening my boyfriend took him out to eat and to play golf; that was their bonding thing. I didn't ask exactly what they discussed. That's between them. But I do know my boyfriend made sure to let him know that he was loved and cared for regardless of what happened between the two of us.
I knew that this was still a serious matter. It wasn't enough to just put a temporary band-aid fix on problem that was stemming from something much deeper. My child had abandonment issues and he clearly didn't know how to deal with his emotions in a healthy way. I set out to find a counselor for him. In the black community the very mention of seeking a therapist or a counselor or a psychologist triggers scornful looks and raised eyebrows. Seeking a therapist for your black teenager -- virtually unheard of. As I expected, his father was not supportive of the idea and insisted that he was just faking to get out of school. I ignored his ignorance and went ahead as planned.
I wanted a black male therapist because I felt like he would respond much better to someone that could relate directly to him. Where we live, the choices were slim pickings but a friend referred us to one and I immediately set up his sessions.
He started going weekly, some sessions with me and some without me. Then we scaled it back to every other week. He went for about 4 or 5 months. Having someone to talk to and relate to and help him work through his emotions made all the difference in the world for him. I saw an immediate change in his disposition.
When he started the school year at the new school he adjusted almost seamlessly and now he is thriving. His grades are back on track, he's involved in extracurricular activities, and no more instances of skipping school at all.
Parents I urge you to talk with your kids and be vigilant of any changes to their moods, behaviors, or routines. Don't write them off as being kids who aren't capable of experiencing burn out, stress, or depression. They do.
It could be as simple as needing a sanity break to reset. However, it may be more serious and require professional help. Understanding when you may need the help of therapist to work through whatever you are dealing with is a great life lesson that we should instill in our kids. I've sought the help of a therapist at some point in my life as well and I freely shared that with my son to put him at ease about talking to someone.
If our child ends up being diagnosed with a clinical mental illness they can still lead happy, healthy productive lives but we can't be afraid of seeking help for them when we think it's warranted. The best way to set them up for success is by equipping them now with the tools they will need to navigate life's stresses and disappointments in a healthy way.
Visit the mental health awareness website for more information on mental health prevention and resources.