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Starting the Conversation: Tips for parents for talking about mental health

When children and teenagers find themselves feeling depressed, anxious or suicidal, parents and trusted adults can hold the key to helping them. But parents don’t always know how to navigate those difficult conversations.

Starting the conversation: Parents, kids and mental health

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Rocky Mountain PBS talked with mental health professionals, suicide loss survivors, youth, and suicide prevention professionals about prevention, and they shared some advice for how to have the conversation.

Don’t be afraid use the word 'suicide' and ask direct questions

“It's very important that if you have a family member and they are in crisis to actually ask them if they are suicidal. Saying, ‘Are you going to harm yourself?’ is not addressing the severity,” said Billie Ratliff, the director of behavioral health at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.

“The biggest thing that I can put out there for professionals and parents, is that talking about [suicide] does not cause it. That is absolutely a myth. We have to open the door,” said Andrea Wood, the Zero Suicide Coordinator at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.

When life changes happen, ask how they’re doing and listen

Big life changes like parents divorcing, relationships ending, the death of a friend or loved one, legal or discipline problems, and other disruptive events can put young people at risk.

“Have a basic conversation with the youth that really just sounds with like, ‘Hey, this hard thing happened, and I just want to check in with you. I know that you must have some sort of thoughts about it and I'd like to hear what those thoughts are. I'd like to understand how you're feeling about it.’ And then the adult just needs to shut up and listen, because the rest of that conversation is going to be directed by that answer,” said Cassandra Walton, the executive director of Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership.

Listen, even if you can’t fix the problem

During a cluster of youth suicides in Colorado Springs several years ago, many parents brought their suicidal children to the emergency room. Clinicians there remember what children said they needed from their parents.

Resources: Let’s Talk Colorado - What to say when someone needs help

“As a parent, we want to fix something, we have to take care of them. That's not what these kids were asking for. They didn't want [their parents] to fix something, they wanted to talk about their feelings and know that no matter what is happening, that they are supported,” said UCHealth Memorial Hospital’s Billie Ratliff.

“Just saying, ‘You don't have to like me. We don't have to agree on everything, but I love you no matter what you're feeling and what you're going through. I'm here to work with you through it, not to fix it, but to work with you through it,’ I think is huge,” said Maria Niichel, the head counselor at Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs.

Remember their childhood is different than yours

“I think every parent should realize that our kids are much different than us,” Walton said.

“A lot of adults won't validate it. They're like, ‘You're just a teenager. I have so much more on my plate,’” said Sienna Adams, a recent graduate and mental health advocate. “But as a teenager, it's all you know. You don't know anything but high school. So obviously this is a big deal … You have to validate it.”

Resources: Forward Together Colorado - for parents and for youth

“I don't know if you remember middle school, but it is not an easy time in life. Right?” Walton said. “So if the first time that you're experiencing failure is in middle school … you're confused and you're scared... And so parents have to see their children through that lens. It is a big deal.”

Ask boys and young men about their feelings too

While seeking support after his son’s death by suicide, Peter Leizer of Colorado Springs said he realized men and their sons need to be more vocal about their mental health.

“I went to a teen panel at a high school, and one of the biggest things that hit me was, on the panel there were probably 18 teenage girls and two teenage boys. And then I looked around the audience and the demographics, there were 99, 98% women, moms, and there's just only a handful of us dads,” Leizer said.

Resources: Man Therapy helps guide men to support

“I think there is still a huge stigma for dads and boys to actually talk about their feelings, to actually admit that something’s bothering them… I see that prevalent in a lot of men, way more so than women,” he said. “But what I’m seeing is communities like Colorado Springs are making a push to get out there and talk about these topics.”

Ask for help

“Just because I'm the parent doesn't necessarily mean I'm the right person to have this conversation. It needs to be the person who that kid trusts the most, who they feel like they can be vulnerable with,” said Cassandra Walton of Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership.

“So if you are worried about your kid first, put your ego aside and say, am I close enough to my kid right now for them to feel safe telling me how they feel about this?” Walton said. “And if the answer is I'm not sure or no, then who is that person? Then I would partner with that trusted adult, if it's not you, and then have a basic conversation with the youth.”

Resources: If you are suicidal or in crisis, Colorado Crisis Services is here to help 24/7. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255. If you are concerned about someone you know, you can contact Colorado Crisis Services for advice on how to offer support.

More from Lifelines: Preventing Youth Suicide

Someone Like Me

Learning Through Loss

Suicide Prevention Resources

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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