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Q. Recently my 16-year-old son's friend approached me and told me he was worried about my son. He said that my son has seemed very depressed lately and that he's even mentioned killing himself a couple of times. I've noticed that my son has stopped going out with his friends, and he recently quit the basketball team. His grades are okay, but many of his teachers tell me he could be doing much better than he is. I have tried to talk with him several times, but he just shrugs me off and says nothing is wrong. What can I do? How can I help him?
A. It's horrible for any parent to think her child would ever contemplate killing himself. Parents hope for the best for their children, and feel paralyzed when confronted with evidence that something horrific may be occurring in the life of their child. Parents will tell themselves such things as, "No it just couldn't happen. He wouldn't do that." Most of the time, they're right.
However, when a person -- particularly a teenager -- mentions suicide, it's important to take the person seriously. Taking the person seriously doesn't mean the child is truly on the verge of taking his life, although he could be. What it does mean is that the teen feels hopeless and helpless and suicide seems like a way out. Many teens fantasize about suicide and the resulting funeral.
The teen years are tough. Every adolescent faces a crisis as he loses his childhood identity and seeks to achieve a new one as a young adult. Your son is in the middle of this crisis. He's crying out for help but it's not usually parents who can provide it. It's often a teacher, friend, relative, counselor, or member of the clergy who does the most to help the teen through the crisis. Moms and dads do best by standing in the background offering stability, hope, and encouragement.
It's important to tell your son how much you love him. How you have faith that although times are tough now, you believe that everything will be okay. Get out pictures of him when he was a little boy. Tell him how much he means to you.
Ask people in his life who are important to him -- grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, coaches -- to write him a letter about how much he means to them. Ask them to focus on who he is rather than on what he does. Recognition of him as an individual is much more important than any of his achievements.
In the movie Bowling for Columbine, one of the creators of South Park speaks to the point that someone should have told Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris that high school, in the big picture of their lives, really isn't all that important. Your son needs to hear this message, too. He will hear it best from a young adult who experienced similar thoughts and feelings as his during high school.
Tell the high school counselor about your son's words regarding suicide. She can keep an eye on him and alert his teachers. She can even call him in for a consultation.
Call your son's medical doctor and tell him, too. Make your son an appointment. The doctor can recommend a therapist and prescribe an antidepressant if your son is depressed.
Don't be afraid to say, "You've talked about suicide. I'm worried. It's my job to keep you safe and alive. I'll do every thing in my power to do so. You're my son. I love you."