I haven’t had it easy. My parents divorced when I was young. My mom and I ended up poor and food insecure – sometimes eating only because of the generosity of others. Those were hard times, but I have found that these experiences have made me a kinder and more compassionate teacher who can see when my students are struggling in a way that some of my peers can’t.
Several members of my family have struggled with mental health issues. Early in my career, I would empathize with my students who said they (or their family members) were struggling with their mental health. Still, it wasn’t until I started struggling with depression and anxiety attacks that I could really understand. No amount of taking calming breaths and thinking rational thoughts will slow down your heart rate when you are in mid-panic attack, and thanks to my experiences, I now know that.
Just this past week, my son told me that he hated himself and that he wanted to kill himself. I was sad and alarmed. I knew he was tired and hungry. I also knew that he was disappointed in himself for how he performed in a recent sporting activity and that during the past week, he had expressed frustration about dynamics in his class at school.
I stopped him and pulled him into my lap. I told him how much I loved him. And how the world would be a much worse place without him.
I also had an experience to share with him to help him understand what it would mean if he tried to kill himself because years ago, my father attempted suicide. He thankfully wasn’t successful. This was a story I had never shared, but at this moment, it was clear to me that it was time.
I told my son about how sad and scared I was when I got the phone call that my dad was found unresponsive, and they were trying to revive him. I told my son how that was the saddest day of my life. How after my dad recovered, I told him that I wanted and needed him in my life for so much longer. How I am so happy that my dad didn’t succeed because the problem that led him to attempt taking his life resolved itself, and because he failed in his attempt, we could still be in each other’s lives.
My son sat there quietly. He leaned into me. And then I told him how it would be so sad if he ever tried to take his life. That not only would I be sad, but that so many people, his sister, his dad, his grandparents, his friends, our neighbors, and more would all be sad. And for some of us, it would be the saddest day in our lives. We needed him to share what was going on and always know how much he is loved and how we will do whatever we can to help fix any problem he ever has.
And that was when his anger turned to tears. He started crying, and a whole avalanche of feelings and worries came falling out. We had a great discussion, and I learned a few new things that were bothering him. I was relieved that what he really needed was a chance to have my full attention and to talk about his feelings.
Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that he didn’t really intend to harm himself but that he needed help. That he was struggling and frustrated and sad and angry, but not that he had any real plans to do something to injure himself. And I think that in some small way, he felt better to know that sometimes, other people, adults he loves and looks up to, have also had these negative thoughts rolling around in their head. That he wasn’t alone in feeling despair.
And I hope that he doesn’t let things build up this much in the future, that he will know he can talk to me, and I will do anything I can to help, but time will tell. All I know is that his outburst gave us a chance to have a deep conversation and connect, which is a big deal for my son.