When I was 15 years old, I tried to kill myself by overdosing on the medication I took to control the seizures I’d started having the previous year. I regretted the action almost immediately. Just as my mother was heading to bed, I tearfully accosted her in her bedroom. I told her what I’d done, and watched as what I perceived to be a mix of rage and frustration flashed in her eyes.
We drove to the emergency room in absolute silence. I don’t remember much of the specifics of our visit, but I vividly recall forcing down an awful liquid charcoal substance. I also remember my mom negotiating with the doctor to stop them from keeping me there on a psych hold.
They did release me that night, and I was too afraid to ask my mom if I could stay home from school when morning came. She drove me to school in silence, and I stumbled through the day overwhelmed with anxiety and fear of what would happen once I got home that afternoon.
Looking back, it doesn’t take a genius to see that those pills I swallowed were a desperate cry for help. I was in the throes of teenage angst at its worst. For starters, I’d been diagnosed with epilepsy and I was taking meds that made me feel like a zombie. I resented every single dose I had to take. I desperately missed feeling like myself.
That previous summer, one of my friends died very suddenly of cancer. One Saturday, we were sitting on the floor in my room listening to the Smashing Pumpkins and then she just wasn’t at school on Monday. It was that quick. I was supposed to visit her in the hospital on Thursday. I’d even picked up a bouquet of sunflowers—her favorite—to bring with me. The phone rang that morning, and the thin, tired voice of her mother told me that her daughter was gone. It was my first real experience with death. I will never be able to hear the songs from that album and not think of her.
When you compound those significant life events with the normal rigors of life in a high school where I never fit in, it’s really not surprising that my bottle of pills called to me that night. It was too much. All of it. I needed help, but I had no idea how to ask for it. I couldn’t put a name to my feelings. I didn’t have any appropriate coping mechanisms. My mom thought she was doing what was best by giving me space because that’s what I said I wanted, but as we know, wants and needs are two very different things.
Today is World Mental Health Day, and this year, the World Health Organization has chosen to focus on suicide prevention. Every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide. 20+ years ago, I could have been a piece of that statistic.
I chose to focus on this story from my youth because I think young people today are at far greater risk than in years past. Bullying doesn’t just happen at school—now, it’s online and it can even be viral. Teens today aren’t sheltered from what’s happening in the world. The news could be avoided when I was young, but now, the news is everywhere people are. They’re watching us in real time as we refuse to take responsibility for their futures. Imagine the weight of that.
I wonder if I could have better memories of my teen years if I’d understood what depression and anxiety were. We never talked about it—not on a clinical level, anyway. Depressed meant sad, and anxious meant worried. I never realized that sometimes, those feelings were out of my control. Mental health and suicide weren’t things we talked about then. It shouldn’t be that way.
We cannot expect our children to be able to tell us how they feel if we don’t give them the words to describe their feelings.
We cannot expect them to share with us if we spend their childhood talking about mental illness as if it’s something to be ashamed of.
We cannot be their safe space if they’re worried about the repercussions of feelings they can’t—or don’t know how to—manage.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. If you need help, call 1-800-273-8255.