Warning: this blog and podcast contains references to suicide and may be distressing.
In this podcast (episode #279) and blog, I speak with Jason Reid, founder of the Choose Life foundation and creator of Tell My Story, about his own experience as a grieving father, how to get help if you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, how to recognize the signs if someone in your life is struggling, what we can do to help our loved ones who are going through a difficult time, and more.
Jason started the Choose Life foundation, whose mission is to end teen suicide by 2030, after his son Ryan committed suicide at age 14. No one in his family recognized the signs—they didn’t know that Ryan was struggling and didn’t think to ask if he needed help mentally. He was the class clown, he had a good home, he had friends, he had a loving family… he seemed “okay”, even though he did have some physical health issues.
It never occurred to Jason to check in on his son’s mental health on a regular basis. As he notes, “When your child is physically unwell, we all take ownership of that and make sure they get the help and support the need. So why don’t we have the same attitude when it comes to their mental health?” The way we parent and show up for our children physically AND mentally is so incredibly important. We should never be afraid to ask our children how they are doing or what they are feeling. Everything may seem “normal” on the surface, but they may be struggling inside.
We need to normalize speaking to our kids about their mental health, just like we talk to them about their physical health. When our kids think that everything is always great with us, or when we try to constantly shield our children from our own pain, they are more likely to think that something is wrong with them when they are struggling, or that they are doing something wrong. When it comes to parenting, vulnerability is key.
Of course, as parents, we want to protect our children. We don’t want anything to happen to them or to cause them pain, and, often, we don’t want to relive or share our own traumas. But talking to our children about our struggles is just what we need to do. If we give them the impression that things are always perfect or good with us, then when our kids feel bad or are struggling, they are more likely to think that they are screw ups who can’t get anything right. Our children need to know it is okay to feel depressed, anxious or sad—that it is okay to see what Jason calls “grey clouds” when, for everyone else, the sun is shining.
We also need to be careful of minimizing our children’s struggles. If our child tries to talk to us about what they are going through and we go into “fix it” mode or say something like “just be grateful… there are so many people out there that have less than you or are worse off,” then they may keep their mental struggles bottled up, which will increase their risk for mental ill-health and suicide.
True change starts with us: how we show up for our kids. If we are waiting for someone else to save our child, we will be too late. This includes:
- Respecting their space, even if you do “pay” for the home. Let their room be their room—don’t just barge into or take over their sacred space. It’s all they have.
- Checking in with them mentally on a regular basis. Take ownership of your child’s mental wellbeing like you care for their physical wellbeing.
- Sharing your own feelings (in an appropriate way and at the right time), so that your children know it is okay to feel sad, depressed or anxious. Normalize mental health struggles!
- Creating a safe space in your home so that your child knows that, when they are ready, they can talk to you. Be a good listener—let them know they can come to you without judgement. And when they want to talk, just let them talk. Cancel that work meeting, reschedule what needs to be rescheduled; just be there for them.
- Talking about the uncomfortable. If your child is in a very bad emotional state, it is important to ask them if they have thought about hurting themselves, and, if yes, do they have a plan? This will help you assess the urgency of the situation and take appropriate action (treatments, talk therapy, hospitalization if necessary and so on). Don’t just avoid questions because they make you uncomfortable or because you fear what they may tell you.
Jason talks about these tips in detail in his film, Tell My Story, which is based on his son Ryan’s own struggles. In this amazing film, he shares his story, the warning signs that were missed, and ways we can all help to reverse the isolation and disconnectedness that is killing our youth.
2:02 Jason’s story and why he started the Choose Life foundation
3:50 Why we need to constantly ask our children how they are doing mentally, not just physically
5:30 How the COVID pandemic has changed the mental health landscape
6:18 Why how we show up as parents matters
7:40 Why we should learn how to talk to our children about our own struggles and vulnerabilities, not just shield them from what we are going through
11:45 The importance of letting your child know it is okay to be depressed or struggle mentally
15:50 How our experiences are built into the brain and affect us mentally and physically
24:30 How to help your child if they are struggling
37:55 The healing power of community
39:50 Social media, technology and teen mental health
52:00 Why you need to watch Jason’s incredible film Tell My Story
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.
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