Parents: communication is key to combating suicide

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I have received a number of responses to the column that I wrote last week about teen suicides.  While the responses that I got were diverse there seemed to be a few common threads among them.

 “Depression” was mentioned most and that made sense. But one of the surprising aspects was the fact that in many cases parents were not aware that their child was depressed. Teens have a tendency to communicate less and we all know how much a roller coaster ride the lives of teens can be. It makes some sense that undiagnosed depression is a factor.

Another point was made at the meeting that I attended Thursday night that was presented by Milton High School  and representatives from the Fulton County Board of Education. They said people don’t think twice about going to the doctor for the flu or a broken leg or a fever but we are much less comfortable seeking out help when our emotions – our “head” is not well.  And depression is generally very treatable both by counseling and with medication. Yet there is a stigma about  “mental illness” as opposed to say,  a “dental illness” or a  “flu-illness”  or “sprained ankle illness.”

One surprising and perhaps the most concerning aspect to me as a parent, is that frequently parents of teens who take their own lives have no warning whatsoever  – no indication or clue – that there is a problem at all – either depression or anything else.  This was the case with John Trautwein who is a Johns Creek resident whose son took his own live in 2010.  John believed that his relationship with his children was as good as a father’s could be.  He was happily married,  went to church, coached, helped with homework, didn’t travel so he could be home and close to the family, and all the other things that one would think a parent should do.  Yet he had absolutely no warning sign from his son Will.

John Trautwein now crusades against teen suicide through the foundation that he set up in 2010 – the Will-to-Live Foundation named after his son Will.  His web is www.will-to-live.org.  He and his organization are there and ready to help, now. John speaks at groups, churches, counsels, forms support organizations, and in general does everything humanly possible to fight this scourge.

John believes that communication is one of the core components in teen suicide prevention. And he also believes that most teens are more likely to confide to their friends and peers than they are with their parents. So he has built much of his campaign around enabling, encouraging and training teens to both give and receive peer support.

Trautwein suggests planting the idea – sort of “prepping” your teen – to be predisposed to confide with a friend. One of the approaches he advocates is to simply to ask your teen questions… “if you needed to confide in someone at school who do you think it might be?” or “other than me or your mother, what adult do you think you might confide in if you needed or wanted to talk to someone?” “Do you have a friend that you confide in?” He shared that when he used this approach with his own kids and with the kids in the many programs and events that he organizes they frequently open up and actually talked about who their friends were and which ones they thought they would confide in.

Trautwein also focuses on helping teens to be more aware and sensitive to their friends who may be reaching out for help. He believes that teens frequently – but not always – discretely telegraph their intentions and their struggles to their peers.  Unfortunately these messages often go unrecognized or are not acted upon out of a sense of misguided loyalty or code of teen silence. It is with acts of communication, one teen to another, that Trautwein believes is found the best hope prevention.

Lastly Trautwein repeatedly emphasized that the world our teens are growing up in is vastly different and in many ways much more difficult than the one we experienced. The pressure to achieve in all aspects of life is much greater.  Plus, our teens are “on”  24/7 and their privacy is diminished because of the Internet, social networks and smart phones.  Kids are not allowed to be kids today.

In closing,  John Trautwein told us – and his rage, sorrow and compassion seemed to fill the room – that he would give up everything he owned today, every possession, to still have his “average and C-student” son. His message resonated throughout the audience, and I think must be a wake up call for us all.