While I was in my worst depression and considering suicide, many adults wrote off my struggles as just being “typical teenage behavior.” Adults sometimes disregard mental illness in teens calling it "hormonal" or "teenage" drama. But, I wasn’t trying to be dramatic. I couldn’t flip a switch and stop my thoughts or behaviors. When someone gets diagnosed with a physical illness, people gather around them to solve the problem. When someone’s life is shaped by depression, it pushes others away. However, Ross noticed and validated my suffering. He scheduled regular times to just sit and listen to me. During some of these meetings, I would just cry and cry. Ross never seemed uncomfortable with me, but rather he would ask, “And what can we do to make this better?” When I said I didn’t know, he didn’t press for answers. He would just listen and sit with me. Sometimes he would read the Bible to me, and I would listen. Tiara Coleman
Ross: It's often difficult to differentiate between normal teenage behavior and a teenager who is significantly struggling with mental illness. Teens can be quite good at putting on a mask of normalcy. It’s mind-blowing to see the intense depression and self-loathing that some teens experience while still going through the motions of school and daily life. This ability to function doesn't mean they're doing "ok", or don’t need help. It’s important to be observant and invite youth to speak openly about what they're experiencing.
People sometimes describe destructive behaviors such as self-harming as “Attention Seeking.” But youth are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for being. They know that the attention they’re receiving is not positive attention. It’s not fun for them. If they are participating in a behavior that draws negative attention, they must really need help. It’s best to respond with genuine concern and compassion. It can be scary for adults to broach the topic of depression, self-harm, or thoughts of suicide with youth. However, it’s been my experience that teenagers are surprisingly willing and open to talking about it, so long as a relationship of trust has been established.
Approach # 2: Suspend Judgement
Tiara: I knew Ross was my advocate. No matter how terrible the things I told him about cutting or suicide were, he wasn’t “put off” or scared. I bet I could've told him that I was going to dye my hair purple and run away…and he wouldn’t freak out! He continued to see me as a whole person, Tiara, and not just as a problem or sickness. Ross would ask me how I was doing and wanted me to be able to honestly say, “I’m falling apart,” if I was. Ross never over-analyzed me or tried to offer quick solutions to what were huge problems.
Ross: When working with youth that are experiencing mental illness, my immediate response is to suspend judgement. It’s important to be open to hearing what the young person has to say without jumping to make judgements or demonstrate disdain or fear. Mental illness is messy and complicated. There's sometimes a desire by parents, schools, or the church to want to find a simple solution or fix to the challenges a teenager that they love is facing. However, usually there isn't a simple approach, and adults can only help if they are willing to listen and really hear how serious the distress is for the youth.
Approach 3: Be A Bridge to Help
Tiara: Faith and my relationship with God is important to me, but God isn’t just going to take away this part of me that struggles with depression. Ross helped me validate my feelings and experiences, and through this, I realized that I needed help. Living a good life amidst depression is, and always will be, a hard journey. Fortunately, I’ve learned along the way that there are people, strategies, life choices, and treatments that can help.
Ross: I come from a social work background which has been very helpful in my work as a youth pastor. However, I’m neither a therapist nor a medical doctor. I didn’t have the ability to provide Tiara with all the supports she needed. That’s why it’s crucial for youth workers to know what the resources are in the community and encourage the youth and their parents to get connected. This takes the weight off the youth pastor, or teacher or whoever else, to try and resolve the distress that the young person is experiencing. The youth pastor can be an important lifeline, but the youth pastor cannot carry the responsibility and risk alone on his/her own shoulders. In working with youth, I try to foster relationships of trust and confidentiality, but I also warn teens that there are limits to which I can “hold” their stories. If I work with a young person who is at risk for suicide or experiencing mental illness, I consider myself to also be working with their parents.
Approach 4: Engage the Church in Mental Illness
Tiara: Our churches need to become more comfortable talking about suicide. After I attempted suicide and was hospitalized, I was surprised by how few people dared talk to me about it. I also witnessed this silence and fear when a man in my church died by suicide. There’s just still so much stigma and shame surrounding mental illness, especially suicide. If the church doesn’t feel more comfortable talking about suicide, other people living in depression will continue to feel isolated and hopeless, believing they’re the only “broken” one in the church.
Ross: If the church is about building shalom and wholeness, how can we NOT be having conversations about mental illness and suicide? When people aren't feeling whole, whether it be in the area of mental health, sexuality, addictions, or relationships, the church needs to be a space of belonging and healing. Jesus was concerned about the whole person and, so too, should our churches.
(In an earlier article published by ADN, Tiara shares her personal journey with depression, self-harm, and attempted suicide. You can read this here).
Listed below are resources that promote teen suicide awareness and prevention. Don't hesitate to reach out to us at ADN if you have questions, concerns, or need resources to help you talk to your youth about suicide.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255.
Youth Suicide Prevention Program
The Jason Foundation
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention