“My son was bullied relentlessly throughout middle school for being gay, and over the past year we have been trying to help him with anxiety and depression issues. But he’s starting high school now, and I’ve noticed that his depression seems to be worsening. I’m very worried that he might harm himself if something doesn’t change. What signs should I be looking for, and how can I help him?”
Knowing the warning signs of suicide is so important, especially with LGBTQ young people, who are at a heightened risk for attempting suicide. More often than not, people don’t know what to look for or what to do when they notice something is up. Reaching out for help like this was the absolute right thing to do, because you have already noticed one of the signs: that your son is depressed and he has had a sustained change in mood. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s considering suicide, but, as you’ve noticed, he’s in pain and you want to help.
Parents, friends, and young people alike should take on the responsibility to learn more about warning signs of suicide, because we can all intervene to save a life. At The Trevor Project’s website, we have a list of some of the most noticeable signs: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/warning-signs. Once you know what it looks like when someone is in pain, the next step is figuring out what you can do to help.
At Trevor, we always recommend having an open, honest, and direct conversation with the people in our lives we are concerned about. Perhaps you can sit down with your son, express your concerns, and follow up with a direct question—(“I know you have been going through a lot at school and it is understandable that with everything going on, you’ve been feeling anxious and depressed. I’ve noticed that lately your depression seems to be worsening and I love you and I’m concerned about you. With everything that is going on, have you been thinking about killing yourself?”
You might be thinking “Wow! That’s a tough question to ask.” We aren’t used to asking these questions directly, and it often has to do with our own fear about the potential answer. But asking that question—“are you thinking about killing yourself”—can save a life. It doesn’t give someone the idea, and there’s no room for misinterpretation. It’s a “yes” or “no.” If it’s a “no,” you can figure out what else is going on and come up with a plan for treating the depression. If it’s a “yes,” you did the right thing by asking and now you can get the help that is needed.
I can assure you that hundreds of young people answer that question every single day on The Trevor Project’s 24/7 Lifeline. If the answer is “yes,” you can consider calling our Lifeline together (866.488.7386) to figure out how to get immediate help. You can also connect with your family physician or a mental health specialist, who are trained to intervene with someone who is considering suicide. The point is to connect the person to help immediately.
Regardless of the answer, just letting your son know that he can talk to you if he wants to is a HUGE gift. By asking directly if he is thinking about suicide, you take away stigma and the silence associated with suicide. Don’t let it discourage you if he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about it. It is important to empower him to talk to another adult who he trusts by saying something like, “If you don’t want to talk to me about this, that’s okay, but who is someone you’d like to talk to instead?” This would be a great moment to ask him to save The Trevor Project’s Lifeline number into his cellphone: 1-866-488-7386. We have trained counselors who are ready to talk 24/7. He doesn’t have to go through any of this alone.
One of the most powerful things about working on the Lifeline is hearing young people open up about what is going on in their lives. So often in young peoples’ lives, adults minimize and invalidate what they are going through. But to a young person, a day of being bullied at school can feel like a lifetime, a first crush can feel like true love, and four years from now seems like eternity away. I encourage us all to try to not minimize a young person’s problems and concerns. When we truly listen and validate what they are going through, we can create a supportive environment for them to openly share their feelings and problems.
Now, let’s talk about some long-term ways to improve your son’s situation. You mentioned that he is depressed, and I want to let you know that depression is a treatable condition. If possible, it’s a great idea to connect him to a counselor or therapist who he feels comfortable talking with. That’s something you can do together with him. Try and use inclusive language like, “we can do this” or “we can find you someone together.” A great place to find a therapist is through http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/. The Trevor Project also has other life-affirming resources you can find (and print out and hand to your son, slip under his door, make your web browser’s homepage, etc.) here: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/get-help-now.
Another thing to think about is his environment. School is somewhere he has to be, so try and help him to identify adults at school he can talk to. Some questions you could explore include: are there LGBTQ social or support groups in the area? Does his high school have a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance)? You can work together to identify support systems in your community!
You also mentioned that your son has been bullied. It sounds like you really care about your son, and a great way to show that you care is to be an advocate for safer schools. Whether someone is being bullied or having a hard time, advocating for safer schools can make life better for everyone. A great start would be to look into GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (http://www.glsen.org/) or the Trevor Project’s resources for youth and adults: TheTrevorProject.org/Resources.
Please also remember to take care of yourself. With everything going on, it is completely understandable if you are scared, anxious, or under a lot of stress. The best way we can be an ally to someone else is to first take care of and nurture ourselves. On top of your regular self-care routine, try and reach out to your local PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays). PFLAG offers in-person support groups that could be really beneficial for you. You don’t have to go through this alone, either!
The truth is that adolescence can be an incredibly isolating and challenging time and we know that this is especially true for young people who are LGBTQ or who fit outside of gender or social norms. Having adults like you who are attentive and compassionate to their experience helps reduce their risk of suicide and negative mental health outcomes. When we express our concern and ask direct questions about what’s going on, we have the capacity to save and change lives. If you’re ever unsure of how to do that, you can reach out to the Trevor Project’s Lifeline at 866.788.4386 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Allyee Whaley is a Crisis Services Coordinator at The Trevor Project, the leading national suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth. Allyee manages “Ask Trevor,” an international online Q&A resource for young people regarding sexual orientation and gender identity as well as coordinates operations on The Trevor Project’s 24/7 national suicide prevention lifeline. Allyee has long strived to create balance in the universe by listening attentively, advocating ruthlessly, and loving compassionately. She is an openly polyamorous queer based in New York City who will talk your ear off about anthropology, human sexuality, social justice, and mystical creatures.
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