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What age is appropriate to begin the conversation on mental health?  

family sitting on grass near building

What age is appropriate to begin the conversation on mental health?  

My answer: it is never too early to start the conversation.

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding wellness conversations are that you only need to have the conversation once. Like various other wellness and safety conversations, mental health conversations are not a one-time sit-down dialogue when your child reaches a certain age. These conversations should begin at birth.

What do you mean conversations should begin at birth?

Communication can occur in different ways. For example, when a baby is crying, providing support by holding the baby close to your heart, softly singing, or gently rocking them can be not only soothing but also let the baby know they are not alone. Another example would be allowing the baby to scream and cry (as recommended by doctors for the baby’s age) can also teach the baby that it is okay to express their emotions. Then, as your child continues to grow up, providing safe space to express their emotions without judgement is extremely important.

When a child is in grades K-2, these are core years in emotional health. This is when we often begin invalidating and gaslighting them. Although the problems and stressors children face may seem “small” or “insignificant” to us as adults, they are still very real and very difficult for children. By shutting down children when they begin to cry or get upset with phrases like:

  • People are dying.
  • Big girls do not cry.
  • Stop acting like a girl.
  • You are acting like a baby.
  • You are being dramatic.
  • Stop crying.

We are communicating that their feelings are not important, and thus, they should suppress them. Then, as they get older, we often build upon that same destructive message.

In grade school (3-5), we often use phrases like “You are not 5 anymore, grow up” when children express themselves. Often times, we do not pay attention to the drama or problems they are facing, because elementary school bullying builds character and thicker skin. Essentially, we teach them that it is okay for people to be mean to them and it is wrong for them to speak up for themselves.

By middle schools, when gossip and bullying are at an all time high, when children are beginning to explore or understand their sexuality, when their bodies are changing, they are extremely impressionable. This is a key age for self-esteem. However, we often invalidate their problems by saying, “Do not let it bother you. This won’t matter in 5 years.” Essentially, we are teaching them that their feelings do not matter.

Then, we get to high school, where life becomes complicated. Many kids are experiencing or have experienced first love and first heartbreak, grief and trauma of losing loved ones, extreme pressure on grades and SAT scores, stress to decide the trajectory of their life by choosing a college and a major, puberty, bullying, and the list goes on. Instead of having healthy wellness check-ins, we are piling more and more on to their plates with impossibly high expectations.

Then, we see suicide is the second leading cause of death from ages 10-35 in the United States, and we ask ourselves why.

Why is the suicide rate so high among our youth?

Here’s why: we are invalidating them, subconsciously teaching them to suppress their emotions, meanwhile refusing to engage in important conversations.

Imagine if in K-2, we taught kids that it is normal to have feelings AND that all feelings are valid. Imagine if we taught them there are different ways to express their emotions, such as through speaking, drawing, writing, or music.

Imagine if in 3-5, we taught kids what mental health is on a scale from wellness to illness. Imagine if we explained that sometimes, we may move along the scale as the day goes on, and that is normal to not always be happy.

Imagine if in 6-8, we taught kids about early symptom detection. Imagine if we gave them the tools and resources needed to explore their symptoms and emotions, while developing tools to cope with them. Imagine if by the time kids were 13 years old, they understood how to advocate for themselves and their mental health. Imagine if they knew the right questions to ask themselves and their doctors.

Imagine if in 9-12, we taught kids about suicide prevention. Imagine if we taught kids how to have supportive and validating conversations with their peers, as well as warning signs to look out for with themselves and with each other. Imagine if we educated them on various mental illnesses and resources available to them.

Imagine if by the time one graduates from high school, they have all of the tools and resources needed to maintain emotional wellness and cope with life’s stressors and traumas. Imagine if we set the next generation up for success in life, rather than throwing them into the world with no real understanding of mental health or how to maintain it.

So, when should we have the conversation? Every. Single. Day.

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What do we do when someone feels hopeless?

photo of people reaching each other s hands

I do not want to be here anymore.

That heartbreaking phrase is something no one wants to hear. Even more so, that is a feeling no one desires to experience. So, what do we do when someone feels hopeless? Do we engage in a conversation and provide support, or do we ignore it to protect ourselves? The answer to this simple question is a key component to suicide prevention.

Let us explore 4 scenarios.

Fran feels hopeless. Fran grew up in a world where everyone told her to “grow up”, “suck it up”, “build a bridge and get over it”, “stop being a baby”, etc. thus, Fran suppresses all of her feelings. Anytime she has reached out for support in the past, Fran felt like she was gaslighted and invalidated. As a result, Fran is afraid to feel, and even more terrified to speak up about it. Fran’s mind is now in control of her every thought. She thinks about dying all of the time, when she is walking, when she is eating, when she is driving, and when she is sleeping. Fran wants to give in to her hopeless thoughts, but she chooses to reach out for support one last time, in hopes that someone extends a hand back to her. Fran decides to open up about her hopeless thoughts. She shares with a confidant that she is profoundly struggling and having thoughts of suicide.

In scenario 1, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts out of fear. Instead of listening and holding a safe space, the loved one immediately says, “Do not say that! Do you know what that would do to me?” Fran immediately shuts down and feels like no one understands her. Fran interprets the response as the loved one does not care about Fran but only about themselves. As a result, Fran decides suicide is the only answer, because no one truly cares about her to provide the support she was begging for.

In scenario 2, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by blowing her off. Instead of listening and holding a safe space, the loved one immediately says, “You are being dramatic, stop trying to get attention.” Fran interprets the gaslighting as confirmation that suicide is the only answer because in the moment she needed it most, no one cared to truly listen and understand, instead they chose to belittle her feelings.

In scenario 3, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by listening and providing a shoulder to cry on. For the first time, Fran feels like maybe her life is worth living, maybe she is loved and needed more than she realized, maybe she is not the burden she felt like she was. Fran appreciates the support and views it as a sign to keep going. However, when the loved one does not follow up again, Fran starts to question if she has a support system, and the thoughts begin to worsen.

In scenario 4, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by actively listening, repeating validating statements, asking non-judgmental open-ended questions when appropriate, and providing support. The loved one even offers to help Fran find resources that are available, if Fran is comfortable with the hands-on support. A few days after the conversation, Fran’s loved one follows up by checking in and reassuring Fran that they are there if and when she needs support, someone to talk to, or help in finding resources. Fran feels loved, safe, and not alone for the first time in a long time.

Let’s Review.

I understand it can be extremely difficult to engage in conversations about suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts); however, as these 4 scenarios show, our reaction when someone reaches out is an essential part of prevention. I understand that in the moment, it can be hard to know the proper way to react and respond. I understand that no one may have educated you on mental health conditions, depression, or suicidal ideation so you are uncomfortable around the topic. I understand that it can be terrifying to hear a loved one feels hopeless, and you did not know. I understand that there is a stigma on all thing’s mental health, and you were never provided the tools and resources you needed to learn the right way to approach the conversation. However, we have to start doing better.

That heartbreaking phrase that no one wants to hear is something many people around you are thinking and feeling daily. In fact, there are people who are so close to the edge that they can only think about how much they do not want to be here. If they reach out, if they find the strength and courage within themselves to speak up, I ask of you, please do not gaslight them and please do not invalidate them. Take them seriously at their word, actively listen to them, show them you care, and support them in a way that makes you both feel comfortable and safe. You do not have to act as their therapist, but you can connect them to a Crisis Hotline or to a therapist. You do not have to sit with them all day everyday to “watch” them, but you can sit with them now and follow up. You do not have to “save” them, but you can assure them that they are not alone in this.

You cannot save someone, they can only save themselves, BUT you can let them know that they ae not in this alone. You can be a source of love and comfort. You can be a reminder that everything eventually will be okay. Even in scenario 4, you cannot save Fran, but because you offered the support she needed, you made her feel like there was a reason to keep going. The thoughts did not suddenly disappear, and Fran was not healed immediately, which is why scenario 3 did not work. Following up is a key part of prevention and support.

So, what do we do when someone feels hopeless? We listen. We validate. We support. We show empathy. We follow up. We provide a safe space. We let them know that although they have every single right to feel what they are feeling, they are seen, they are heard, they are loved, they are worthy of this life, and they are more than enough. Even more than that, we make sure they know that they are not alone. When someone’s life is hanging on by a thread, our response can save their life or push them over the edge.

And remember, not everyone will feel comfortable opening up and reaching out for support, especially if they were gaslighted and invalidated in the past. Do not be scared to reach out and check in with your loved ones frequently. Be a consistent reminder in their life that they are not alone, and that you are there for them.

I will leave you with this, when someone is drowning and they reach their hand out for support, are you going to push them down, ignore them as they drown, throw a life raft and walk away, or reach out your hand and pull them back into safety?