Having a child with suicidal ideations is a horrible experience. I’m not a mental health professional, and I can only speak from our family’s experience. But if my experience can help, then I want to share it. I hope you know that you're held by God each day, and that this knowledge helps you tether your child to their life here until they emerge from their dark valley.
First, don’t blame yourself for what is happening to your child. Suicidal ideation happens because life seems truly overwhelming. That can happen for many reasons: trauma, chemical imbalance, abuse, bullying, relationship conflict, grief, and more. These things generally aren’t caused by loving and responsible parents. So give yourself grace, not blame, as you live through this one day at a time.
Meds might help, and therapy certainly will. So find a good therapist—for both you and your kid. Meds won’t just “make you happy,” unfortunately. It’s hard to know exactly if or how meds work because it’s impossible to see the neurons inside our skull, but most mental health professionals agree they are worth a try. Meds might stabilize a chemical imbalance. Some meds dull our feelings, the good feelings as well as the bad. If meds can mute some of the suicidal thoughts, then they might help your kid ride this wave of suicidal thoughts. It might be a few months, it might be a few years. Meds and therapy are two things that can help you stay alive on these rough seas.
Don’t feel like you need to give an explanation for why your family is operating differently for a while. Be picky about who you talk to about what is going on with your family. This is for your sake, not just for your child. You don’t owe information to anyone, even friends and family that love you. If you spend time with someone that tends to pry or offer unwanted advice, take a buddy as a buffer. Make the changes you need to make for your family. We didn’t host guests for about three years. We couldn’t plan on having a stable day, and the stimulation of extra people in the house was unbearable for our suicidal child. Some of these changes will be hard for other kids in your family, but you can work through that as time goes on. (Again, find a good therapist!)
For someone who hasn’t been depressed, it’s easy to equate getting out of bed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, and doing homework with “feeling better.” Sometimes we put pressure on our child to do those things just so we can feel better about the situation. You can make your kid take a shower, but that doesn’t wash away the depression. Focus on the emotional world of your child, not the daily behaviors that we associate with mental health. Those behaviors will return in time.
It can be hard to talk about suicidal depression. My therapist said, “Sitting on the bed can be as good as a conversation.” So I’d take my computer to their bedroom, tell them “I am glad you are here. I want to sit near you while I do my work.” Maybe words will come, or maybe not, but you’ve let your child know that they matter to you, and hopefully that will help get them through another day of life while wishing for death.
Teens often ask questions about faith, and deep depression can intensify those queries about God’s role in the world, God’s character, the hypocrisy of Christians, the futility of prayer, and the power of evil. This is difficult if you see your kid’s questions are born out of misery and not curiosity. If your child is willing, connect them to a spiritual director. The openness of these relationships often feels different than talking with a pastor or teacher.
You probably need spiritual guidance as well. Podcasts, pastors, books, friends and spiritual directors can all provide space to talk honestly about suffering without placing blame or giving moralistic lessons. Hopefully your pastor will be helpful, but don’t assume that. Some pastors, in their zeal to help, might throw Bible verses at you about suffering, or pray that you trust God enough to heal your mental health, or encourage you to follow God’s will so you’ll be blessed. You need grace and hope, not blame, and these conversations probably won’t give you what you need. Just as you don’t owe information to anyone, neither are you obligated to listen to a pastor that adds hurt to your hurt. Find a spiritual mentor with empathy, someone who can be hope instead of telling you to hope.
If you are having a bad day, don’t pick this day to ask “Why is this happening to us?” On that day, ask “What can I do to take care of us today?” When the seas are less rough, then ruminate over why bad things happen in this world.
I found that Philip Yancy framed it well in his book, Disappointment With God. Yancy writes that God’s ultimate goal with humans is to have a loving relationship with us. When we look at the world and wonder “Why are bad things happening?”, ask instead “What matters more to God than preventing these bad things from happening to us?”
It’s this real, loving relationship that matters most to God, and God can’t have that kind of relationship with us without relinquishing control over creation so that we can choose God. With that relinquishment, many things go awry. In nature, cells mutate into cancer and invasive beetles eat beloved trees. In human relationships, trauma happens, classmates are mean, life can be awful. These things aren’t happening because God doesn’t care for us, they happen because God cares so much and yearns for a real relationship with us. Your kid who is overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts might not be in a place to have this conversation about why bad things happen in our world, but it still mattered to me as a parent to grapple with it.
On the bad days, go outside and breathe. Notice God’s presence in the cycles and changes in nature. Look for ways that something beautiful grew out of something rotten. Look for beautiful things that didn’t happen instantaneously, like seeds germinating and flowering over a season, leaves changing colors, mountains rising from the crust of the earth, or starlight traveling lightyears to meet your eyes.
You and your child are a beautiful part of this world, and God promises to work in your life in the same way that you see displayed in creation. God made our brains with neuroplasticity, so neurons can change and heal over time. Those changes are slow, but they are as beautiful as an oak or ponderosa growing tall and strong.
As with any grief, you will feel alone. Even a great therapist can’t fix that entirely. But you and your kid are not alone. This is the time to remember those images of a wounded lamb-king in Revelation. Our lamb-king is fighting nose-to-nose with the evil in your life, in your kid’s life. You are not alone in this battle for your child’s life. Jesus, the one who takes upon himself the evil of the world, is fighting for you, and that is just the truth of it.
If you or your loved one or friend is dealing with suicidal ideation, please know there are people who want to help. Below is a list of resources to explore to find help.
Canadian helpline: https://talksuicide.ca/
American helpline: https://suicidehotlines.com/national.html
BeNice.org: https://www.benice.org/ A Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan: Promoting mental health awareness and preventing suicide through education because with knowledge comes the confidence to take action.