Survivors in the Lifeboat: Navigating life after a suicide attempt

May 3, 2018

We talk a lot about how to help someone who is suicidal—what to do, where to go to get help, and even how to manage their suicidality as a friend. We don’t talk a lot about how to navigate the world when someone you care about attempts suicide, whether they complete or not. There’s no handbook for that, especially if you’re a teenager. It’s even worse if you’re the parent of that teenager.

As a parent, my worst nightmare is losing my child. When they are babies, it’s worrying about SIDS, strange diseases, toppling dressers and every other horror a parent’s mind can create. As they age, the demons change—bicycle accidents, darting into traffic, getting separated in a mall, and even the threat strangers play. As they age into high school, we worry about driving, parties, heartbreak, and the temptations of alcohol, drugs and sex. We worry about school shootings, good grades, colleges and how are we going to pay for all of that. We talk a lot about those worries. We don’t talk a lot about suicide, and how we would help our children navigate their emotional minefield if someone they care about attempts—or completes—suicide.

This week, we learned those lessons when one of my son’s closest friends attempted suicide. Fortunately, she survived and is getting the help she needs to recover from trauma most would find unsurvivable. In the wake of that event, many youth were impacted, including my son. We know that only 10% of those who attempt suicide complete it. However, more than 80% of those who die by suicide have a previous attempt. This was not her first attempt. It was her seventh, with the most recent being just two weeks prior.

Social media brings so many opportunities, good and bad. Social support, engagement, positive reinforcement and communication are all wonderful things that support today’s youth. Texting and SnapChat provide immediate communication links, and those links kicked into action when she texted a friend that she wouldn’t be going to prom after all. Knowing all she had been through, her circle of friends texted each other and descended upon her home, bearing witness to what happens when someone so young attempts suicide in a community ill-equipped to handle things in a trauma-informed way. While she was safe, those who witnessed all that happened were left in tears.

So what happens when someone your child knows attempts suicide? How do we help our children make sense of something so unimaginable, so terrifying, that we as parents are terrified that our children would feel that desperate someday? What do we do? Here are just a few ideas to help you help your teen deal with the unimaginable:

1.    Listen: Be there. Be present. Ask them to tell you the story of their experience, and just be a container to hold it. That’s where you can learn what they know, what they saw, and begin to understand how to support them.

2.    Reach out to their school: Schools are communities, and much like soap operas, everyone knows just enough about what’s going on to have an opinion and foster gossip, even in the most well-meaning schools. Don’t assume what they know and don’t know about the situation. Call the guidance counselors and let them know that your child was affected. This helps them know what kids to support and where to target their efforts.

3.    Create a safe space: In the days following the attempt, the youth who witnessed and knew she needed a place to talk. They found a safe space to congregate in someone’s living room, and pizza and movies provided sufficient distraction to enable conversations about their fears and experiences. Giving them a chance to collectively talk without direction allows them to process in a safe, non-judgmental space.

4.    Reach out: I have a friend at NAMI Oregon who often reminds me that mental illness isn’t a “casserole” disease. What he means is, in the aftermath of a suicide attempt, people don’t call and offer support. Usually, they just walk away, reinforcing the shame and stigma of mental illness. Take a risk and reach out to the family and offer support. More often than not, your kids already have, and as a fellow parent navigating the rough waters of adolescence, it’s often reassuring to have someone just offer a kind ear to listen.

5.    Grace: It’s really tough to understand why someone would decide to take their own life. This creates complex emotions for our children to grapple with—anger, fear, sadness and even questioning what makes them so different from their friend. Expect all the complicated emotions to come out, and give grace for short tempers, sadness, communication issues and even missed classes to talk it out with counselors and other support people.

6.    Support: Supporting someone who has attempted suicide is difficult for anyone. It’s important to support your teen and watch for signs that they are in over their head. Making them aware of the resources of peer suicide hotlines like Teen Line and Youthline are critical resources to help someone who is affected by suicide. If you or your teen is having difficulties dealing with the situation, please reach out for professional help. It’s available 24/7.

We live in an age where our lives are on display through social media, and information is just seconds away. Find ways to support your children, let them know that they are not alone and that there are safe places to talk. Suicide touches all of us, so let’s teach our children how to survive, thrive and change the conversation about mental illness.

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