In December 2020, I took a Youth Mental Health First Aid class. This training teaches parents, teachers and other adults how to support young people with mental health challenges, including how to use nonjudgmental listening skills and how to approach a young person and encourage them to seek treatment if needed.
One of the first things we learned is the difference just one person can make in a teen’s life by simply asking, “Are you OK?” Sometimes, it’s all you can do to calm your own internal storm long enough to connect and hold space for them, but the effort can truly make a difference.
In the training, we talked about a quote from the movie “The Replacements:” “Like a duck on a pond. On the surface everything looks calm, but beneath the water those little feet are churning a mile a minute.” This is how parents and caregivers often need to be when talking to a teen about mental health. This is now what I try to do when talking to my teenage son, Gabe.
Gabe has depression and anxiety. When Gabe treads into territory that scares me — his feelings of despair and discontent — when he threatens with an ardent rush of words to convince both of us nothing matters and nothing will ever get better, I take a deep breath and present my carefully arranged features to him, holding my hands in my lap so he will not see them quivering. I ask him, “What can I do?” and wait in the silence for the answer.
Because of COVID-19, I took Youth MHFA virtually. During the training, I wrote bullet points in my notebook, each marked with a star:
The training reminds me that Gabe is more than the sum of his challenges — though that is sometimes difficult for both of us to see or believe. Often his sadness and stubborn anxiety take up all the space in the room. There’s nothing left for laughter, lightness, or the faint memory of the blond boy he once was, the one who ran through the neighborhood with a plastic sword and eye patch singing, “What do you do with a scurvy pirate?”
We split into breakout rooms for a role-playing exercise on suicide prevention. Each of us is paired with another participant. We must ask one another a single question, from the heart, gazing through the surreal lens of the computer’s camera. A question we are not to answer, just to pose. One I have been asked before, but never asked anyone else: Are you thinking about killing yourself?
I speak it as soft as a prayer, the way I spoke in the dark confessional as a child. I feel like I might faint. My partner’s kind eyes regard me from the Zoom window until we return to the larger group to share our experiences. I begin, “I’ve never asked this question before, even though I have a son who struggled with an episode of severe depression. I wasn’t sure how to do it.” But then I stop myself. That’s not true. Or it’s a half-truth.
“I was afraid to ask,” I tell the group of kind strangers. “Because I was afraid to hear the answer. I wish I knew then what I know now. I feel like now I could ask it, no matter what.”
I take another deep breath and turn off my video as people share their experiences. “The truth will make you stronger,” I tell myself.
We end the day-long session reviewing guidelines about delivering reassurance to teenagers, the importance of offering both facts and hope. In this country, an adolescent dies of suicide once every hour and 29 minutes — the time it takes to watch a movie on Netflix or bake a cake from scratch. The conditions of the pandemic have increased loneliness and depression for teens, isolating them further from the world around them, from the face-to-face peer interactions they need to develop and thrive. Knowledge can take them only so far. They need to know things, but they also need to feel. Enter hope — an invisible protective cloak — a bit like a superpower: the ability to envision a different, better future that does not currently exist.
I remember saying to Gabe once, “I know you might not believe it, but you won’t feel this way forever. You have things ahead of you, a whole life you can’t see or imagine yet. But it’s there waiting for you.” He just looked at me and went back to his phone.
But I keep saying the kinds of words I now know plant seeds for him of the life he could have. It’s my job to keep the lights on when he comes home late, make his favorite meals, bring the puppy to his bedroom in the mornings before school.
It’s as if I’m saying, “See, life is still here for you, even if you don’t want it or don’t care. Just reach out your hand. Let me show you. I’ll stay with you as long as it takes.”