That one November night in 2018 will forever be etched in my heart. I so looked forward to that Friday date night, but my excitement turned to confusion, sadness, shame, and regret with just these words from my 15-year-old:
“I took the suicide self-help check and don’t worry Mamang, I only have 5 of the 9 tendencies.”
We were alone in the car and I did not know how to react. I counted to 10 before I asked him why he took the test. He answered casually that he has been thinking about suicide for several months now, but thanks to their school guidance counsellor who has been seeing him regularly, he has not summoned the courage to hurt himself.
That night started our family’s journey to find the light for my son and for us, his parents.
Below are things that parents should know and do about teen suicide prevention.
1. Accept the situation.
Denial. Indifference. Diversion. These are the usual reaction of parents who learned about their child’s attempt to end his life. “Baka may problema lang sa school, lilipas din ‘yan” was my father’s initial reaction when our family discussed my son’s situation. But my husband and I agreed that this should not be taken lightly. So, we took turns fetching him in school, spending more weekend vacations, and just making him feel that we are with him all the time.
2. Reach out to the school’s guidance counselor immediately.
I realized how critical the role of the guidance counselor in immediately addressing mental health issues of students. The counselor told me that I was not informed right away because many students are usually just feeling sad. She administered the suicide quiz to my son when she realized that he is very intelligent and always sides with logic. True enough, that was the trigger to our conversation.
My son is a very good writer, so he ventilated his emotions in his writings as prescribed by the guidance counselor. It was also the tone of his essays, which became very dark by January 2019, that made us decide that we should already seek medical help.
3. Talk to his friends.
I set a date night with his friends to find out the extent of the problem. He has six friends who have been with him since they were nine. I learned that two of them reported my son’s unusual behavior to the guidance counsellor. From that time on, they would text or call me if something was wrong with my son’s behavior.
4. Seek medical help.
My son was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. A neurologist gave him medicine while a child psychiatrist conducted weekly counselling.
Today, mental health advocacy has already taken a spotlight in mainstream media, but much must be done on-ground. I know of parents who refuse to give anti-depressants to their kid even if prescribed by a psychiatrist believing that their child will be dependent on it.
I can attest that the medication helped my son to become stable emotionally. At one point, he said that he was thinking of ending his life, but it seems that the medicine is preventing him to do it. It was like the neurons in his brain were calibrated to stop him from hurting himself. He stopped taking the medicines after eight months of treatment.
Our entire family underwent counselling too. Mental health illness requires scientific interventions and medical experts are here to help us.
5. Assign a family member to monitor him at home 24/7.
The first and last two weeks of anti-depressants may have effects so we made sure that a family member was with our son during the entire time. My husband and I were both working full-time so we had to rely on my parents and my mom’s only sister to take care of our son.
6. Find a family member who influences him the most.
I would sometimes end in a fight with my son during our talks, so the psychiatrist advised me to identify a person that my son could talk to. Somebody he would listen to. My cousin, a teacher in a private school, stepped in. She understood a teen’s psyche, so she also helped my son navigate through his emotions.
7. Create a mommy community
It was important to create a circle of trust for my son, so I put in the loop the mothers of his friends. I invited them at home so we could have mommy talks. Until now, my friendship with these mommies remain. We hold Christmas parties and summer get-togethers too. Our kids now call us the League of the Mommies.
8. Consult with parents-friends who are or had experienced the same situation.
It brought me a lot of comfort to talk to friends who have kids who also underwent the same problem. I learned a lot from our chats and took solace that this episode in our life will soon pass just like it did for them.
9. Take a breather with your best friends.
The nine months of treatment and therapy was exhausting mentally, emotionally, and physically. As a mother, I was at the forefront. My husband was very supportive and was never absent in our counselling sessions, but I could sense that it was also difficult for him. I stood as his confidante as well. I sometimes cried alone. The psychiatrist warned me that the situation will take a toll on me, so I had to also take care of myself. My best friends since college served as my sounding board and cheered me many Friday nights.
10. Pray together at night
Being the logical person, my son refused to attend spiritual counselling sessions which I read helped other teens overcome depression. But I know that I must guide him to keep his faith strong―to believe that our life is a gift from God. So, from that time on, we hold our Bible reading and reflection every 9:00pm.
Today, we are still cautious when discussing that episode in our family life. Forgive me if I cannot put a byline on this article. I talked to my son about writing this essay and we agreed that we should still remain anonymous. But we also believe that by sharing our story, parents who are still in the dark will finally see the light just like we did.