My 16-year-old son tried to kill himself.
Our day began in the usual hectic way: making lunches, organizing backpacks, driving to school, heading off to work. Then I got a call from the school guidance counselor. “You need to come to school right away. Alex is having a bad day.”
Having no idea what she was talking about, I insisted that she explain. “Alex tried to kill himself this morning,” she said. “He tried to jump out a window, but he was saved by another student and a teacher.”
I was in disbelief. I think in my haze, I actually asked her if she was calling the right Alex’s mom.
Then I heard my son’s tearful voice on the phone.
Somehow, I managed the 20-minute drive to school. My thoughts raced: How did this happen? What warning signs did we miss? How will I ever let him out of my sight again? How will I keep him safe? What do we do next?
Alex was immediately admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit. As we drove home from the facility, my husband and I fought back tears and wrestled with our guilt and worry. I vacillated between shock, disbelief, fear, and sadness.
The next morning, the psychiatrist from the hospital called with a diagnosis of severe depression. “My son is depressed and suicidal. How did everyone miss the warning signs?” we asked ourselves, as we replayed his recent behavior in our minds.
Alex had not displayed the more typical signs of depression, like a change in grades or notably sad moods.
But we came to understand that there had been changes in his behavior that we had dismissed as normal adolescence.
Alex had become increasingly irritable over the last few months. He had been falling asleep over his homework, had become lethargic, and was even somewhat paranoid about his friends. In hindsight, I realize that Alex’s speech had slowed down, that it was hard for him to express his thoughts, and that this was making his friends and family increasingly impatient when talking with him. I never considered that these were warning signs of depression.
As we went through this painful review of all the flags we had missed, we also began the process of healing. Alex was prescribed psychiatric medications that immediately helped improve his condition. My husband and I immersed ourselves in the study of depression, trying to absorb everything we could about his illness and how to deal with it. We learned that Alex had a genetic predisposition toward depression, because there was mental illness and substance abuse in both of our families. Still, the fact that there had been no overt warning signs haunted us.
How did we get through this period? As parents, we worried incessantly about nearly every decision. We were terrified that it could happen again. We were afraid of exposing Alex to any teenage stress, especially school. At the same time, we tried to protect Alex from our own anxiety, because he felt so guilty about putting us through this.
It was especially hard for Alex, who felt like he was under a microscope at home. We insisted that he leave his bedroom door open and that he spend the majority of his time at home with his family. We monitored his contact with friends, since they had been such a source of stress.
It was hard not to pathologize every behavior and to learn to manage our concerns, especially as Alex re-entered his everyday life. Alex was fortunate to have a compassionate therapist, who helped him work through the complexities of high school life and develop better coping mechanisms.
Fortunately, our story turned out well. Three years later, Alex is a freshman in college, majoring in computer science. He is doing so well that he is now completely off of his medication. But in the back of our minds, we are always aware that depression can recur. Alex has learned to be patient with me when I ask about his mood, appetite, sleep, and stress level, and I, in turn, have tried not to analyze his every move.
The most common question people ask when I talk about what happened to our family is “What caused it?” But for Alex, there was no specific triggering event.
One of the most difficult challenges for a parent is distinguishing between normal adolescent behavior and symptoms of psychological illness. We expect teenagers to be moody, have unusual sleep patterns, or spend time alone in their rooms.
But as our experience demonstrated all too plainly, it can be a very fine line between typical teenaged behavior and a cry for help.
We never thought it could happen in our family. We always told our kids that they could talk to us about anything, but when our son was deeply troubled, he could not bring himself to tell us. Alex kept his plan to himself, for fear of upsetting us.
One of the most important things I learned from this experience is to stay involved in your teenager’s life.
Listen to what he’s saying and what he may not be saying. And don’t be afraid to ask the hard question—have you ever thought about suicide?
It may be the most important question you ever ask.