What were the signs? This question is one that I find myself still struggling to answer five years after my son’s suicide. I respond by saying I’d noticed he’d lost weight and had difficulty sleeping, and as a result was unable to concentrate on his schoolwork. His carefree disposition was hidden under a layer of anger and sadness. But even as I put into words the transformation that I had witnessed it rips me apart that I didn’t know that my son was living with depression. These signs did not scream: Do something! Lynn, your son is not managing, your son is severely depressed!
That is the crux of youth mental illness. Are these the symptoms we appropriate to mental illness or are these manifestations purely the push and pull coming of age? Could the changes we notice be part of our kid’s reaction to the pressures we place on them as well as the pressures they heap on themselves?
As parents should we watch from the sidelines while our young adults ‘hit bottom’, as I was instructed to do while seeking support for Daniel after a summer of bad decisions? Or do we hold their grown hands and provide compassion and understanding? You decide, but knowledge is power and may have allowed us to support our son through his crisis.
Mental health research tells us that significant physical and behavioural adaptations are a result of changes in brain functioning. Not simply a matter of growing up.
When I began writing my book, Give Sorrow Words, I went back in time to fit the pieces of Daniel’s life together and it was there that I first encountered the stigma associated with mental illness; the sense of worthlessness and shame. I began to acknowledge that we had contributed to Daniel’s growing malaise because we told him to get his life together. We told him he could do anything if he simply applied himself. When you no longer want to be anywhere. And when all you can feel is self-hate and that you have become a burden; you no longer have the capacity to understand what is happening to your mind. You are unable to get your life together!
Life experiences, expectations, possible head injury, self-medicating behaviour and a sense of not belonging were all part of the litany of factors that led to Daniel’s chronic depression. After his suicide I learned that Daniel had often isolated himself, anguishing alone. The interior shame that he experienced destroyed his instinct for self-preservation. That is the stigma of mental illness and our family tragedy.
I wrote Give Sorrow Words so readers could understand my son’s trajectory from a precocious little boy to an ambitious entrepreneur. He was a successful high school student and athlete. And then the next thing I knew my 23-year-old son was fighting to live. In the book I try to authentically give voice to the signs and symptoms that we did not understand. Perhaps we lived in hope, or maybe denial that things would get better. Our son would figure things out and life would go on. It did not.
By educating ourselves we reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and are therefore in a better position to honestly look at our kids and ascribe the emotional and physical changes to something more than just part of growing up. Talking about mental illness and suicide is difficult and it is an ugly truth for some of us. But statistics bear out this hard reality: It’s estimated that 10-20 percent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness; the number of 12-19 year olds in Canada at risk for developing depression is 3.2 million. (Source: Canadian Mental Health Association)
By engaging youth on the topic of mental illness and creating safe, supportive environments where they are able to share their emotional pain without ridicule or judgment, we reduce stigma. Through education, advocacy, appropriate and timely interventions and treatment our young people living with mental illnesses have the opportunity to once again find meaning and purpose in their lives and the hope they so desperately seek.
So when I’m asked what were the changes in my son I say I hope you read my book.