When we talk about mental health and wellness in children, we often focus on what adults are doing – being vigilant for the warning signs, getting kids into the right treatment programs, raising awareness in our communities. Sometimes in all our efforts to raise awareness and advocate for our kids, adults forget that young people themselves have tremendous power to change their worlds and the lives of those around them.Sometimes it’s a simple as having someone to sit next to at lunch.
Suicide attempts among teenagers are on the rise, and too often we hear heartbreaking stories in the news of children and teens who attempt or die by suicide. It’s easy to think that these are isolated incidents but suicide attempts among children and adolescents are actually more common than you might think. Suicide is actually the second leading cause of death for individuals 10 to 24, according to The Jason Foundation’s Parent Resource Program, with an average of 3,041 adolescents in grades 9-12 attempting suicide each day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16% of high school students reported considering attempting suicide in the last year. Thirteen percent reported making a suicide plan and 8% said they tried to carry out the plan.
My youngest daughter turns 13 in a few weeks. For the first summer in ten years of balancing work and motherhood, I don’t have to worry about the one expense that rivaled my mortgage: summer daycare. Many parents look forward to the day when their children will be old enough to supervise themselves—or even babysit other children—during summer days. But for parents of children who have mental illness, it’s a different situation. While I no longer plan summer daycare for my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter, there’s no way I would have left my son Eric, who lives with bipolar disorder, home alone at the age of 13. He would not have been safe.
I’m a recovering perfectionist. In my writing, I’m always looking for a better way to phrase things (I’ve revised this sentence four times). As a teacher, I’m always tweaking my lesson plans and assignments to try to make them more effective and inclusive. And as a mother of four children, I sometimes agonize over being the best parent I can be, knowing firsthand that a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child. Some days, that means I’ve been pretty anxious, stressed, and sad. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in parenting a child with mental illness is that it’s okay to doubt myself—and even more importantly, it’s also okay to trust myself too.
I’ll never forget the day that my then four-year-old son Eric told me he just wanted to be a zero. “It hurts too much, Mom,” he said, referring to the anguish of sensory overload that sometimes caused him to melt down in public or lash out at his preschool peers. I hugged my little Buzz Lightyear close—Eric loved his hero so much that it was hard for me to talk him into changing out of his Buzz-themed pajamas. What could I do to help my child?
Since my children were young, we’ve practiced the same Thanksgiving tradition. During the first week of November, we sit down together and make our “Thankful Turkeys.” We trace our hands (my youngest daughter’s are now almost as big as mine!) on recycled brown paper grocery bags, then cut our “feathers” from bright construction paper and write what we are thankful for on our feathers.