If you have a son, you should be concerned; here's what you should be doing
Years ago I was working in a school based mental health program as a therapist placed in local high schools. My job, goal and purpose was to help address the suicide issues happening among our teenagers. One morning when I was getting ready to go to work, my phone started ringing. It was about 8:30 AM and on the caller ID was my cousin Bob. Bob and I have a good relationship but he NEVER calls me, this was unusual. Even if he called me, it wouldn't be 8:30 on a Monday morning.
Bob was on his way to work, he drives into Salt Lake. Voice trembling, he told me that the 17 year old teen boy who lived next door had ended his life the day before. They woke up on a Sunday morning to emergency vehicles including an ambulance. Bob had known this kid from church and now he knew him as the kid that was gone forever. Sadly, I had heard this story dozens of times before, the details were usually different. Bob was asking me, because he knew the nature of my work, what he could do to support this family but I first asked him if he was okay. The death of this kid had obviously shaken him. As it should. I knew he was probably holding himself more responsible and I was right. He expressed that he had wished he had done more for the kid, been nicer to him, talked to him more, listened more, etc.
Sadly, I've learned that most people just don't give a damn about this problem until it's entirely too late. And there's nothing worse than too late. Part of me wanted to ask Bob why he waited for someone to die before he cared about the issue and if there's one message that I have for anyone that has a son or sons, it's that they should be mindful that he or they are going to be a higher risk for suicide. If you love your son, it's important to be mindful that he has more than likely received messages that he is has less worth because he is a male and that he doesn't have any real problems because he's a male. Boy are often lectured about privilege which diminishes their struggle. They don't believe that they have a right to feel sad or hurt and so they hide it. Their plights and their struggles are often portrayed as though it's undeserving of empathy or validation. Boys are also often painted as though they are naturally violent and cruel when so many of them are highly empathetic. When they do express how they feel or open up to people, they are rarely supported in the proper way, it becomes a hurtful experience for them and so they just learn to keep it to themselves.
Boys become conditioned to repress their emotions which is harmful and destructive to them. They gravitate towards destructive means of coping and repression such as drug use or an unhealthy relationship with video games and other technology. They're given messages about how they have a destructive evil in them and that they should repress these emotions when this is the worst thing they can do when they are experiencing difficult emotions, which they do. Girls are encouraged to be honest and open, we support them in talking about it when boys are generally scolded and yelled at. Boys tell me all the time that the girls at school get away with murder and they are met with total impunity. The suicide problem alone should tell us everything that we need to know about the whole thing but unfortunately, most people choose to ignore it. Sadly, I just find that adults these days have far less patience or compassion for boys. They're the first ones to be yelled at, scolded, shamed and punished.
How bad is it? It's really bad...
I couldn't even begin to count the number of clients that have been effected by the suicide of a teen boy or man in their life. I've encountered every possible scenario. Adults that never knew their father because he ended his life. Adults that got a call as an adult, their dad had ended his life. Parents finding their dead son. Sons finding dead fathers. Kids whose brother is just memory. Women losing a husband or a boyfriend to suicide and even one teenager that walked in just minutes after his best friend had ended his life. The silence around male suicide is absolutely deafening. Even the mental health industry just looks the other way. As someone who has dealt closely with this issue both personally and professionally, it disturbs me, profoundly, how little this is talked about. It has even exacerbated the faith that I've had in my own industry in profession. A profession largely dominated by women who seem generally indifferent and apathetic about male suicide. Seriously, it troubles me deeply.
I've been immersed in this issue for the last 7-8 years, at least. Pulling it apart, trying to understand it while also trying to make a positive difference; most of the time feeling like a one man army. And while it's estimated that approximately 86% of completed teen suicides in the U.S. are boys, here in Utah, I would wager it's actually higher than that. I've lost count of the boys that have ended their lives while the females, teen or adult, that have ended their lives I think is up to 2. I'm just speaking from the reports I receive in my personal and professional life.
When I bring this up to people, their response is universally the same. "Well, girls attempt more often." I'm sorry everyone, this isn't a contest. And why oh why can't I talk about something significantly impacting boys for one minute without it turning into something about girls? I'm just saying that they deserve for us to care about them long enough to have a conversation about it but it would seem, at times, that we don't. Sadly, I've heard so many stories by now that when a male ends his life, people tend to just to move on. He's not honored, he's not remembered well, the whole thing is ignored and swept under the rug. Sadly, so many of these young boys feel like nobody cares enough about them and so they don't see a problem with dying. I hate to say it, but they aren't entirely wrong. Their cries for help aren't heard and when we lose them, we bury them, we bury it and we move on. After seeing this for as many years as I have the truth is honestly very disturbing.
"The silence around male suicide is absolutely deafening."
What happened? How and why did we get this way? Why are we so detached and apathetic? How did this come to be? If you're a parent, I would strongly encourage you to pay attention to your son or sons. They need you.
So what should you, as a parent, do about this? How should you approach the issue? How should you parent your son? What should you do if you know your son is struggling? Here are some guidelines...
Show and express love, no matter what - It must be said... modern parents to often practice conditional love. They often don't realize they do it, but they definitely do and kids have become conditioned to believe that they are only loveable when they live up to expectations. Frankly, this is totally detached from reality. Kids never fully live up to expectations. Okay, maybe they do when you expect them to be imperfect, flawed, capricious, rebellious and emotional but this isn't what modern parents expect. Modern parents have expectations that are totally detached from reality. You need to love your sons, even when they are angry, even when they break your rules, even when they lie to you and especially when they are upset and unhappy. Hug them, rub their back, spend time with them, have fun with them, be emotionally present and validate them. Be loving. Sadly, this seems to be too much to ask of some parents.
Don't punish, unless you have to - I find these days that parents have one tool in the toolbox. To punish. That's their go to for nearly everything. Unfortunately, I also find that a lot parents have a lot of unnecessary and arbitrary rules while also sporting an extremely low tolerance for those rules being violated which just results in a whole lot of punishing. It brings total destruction to your relationship and breeds defiance, spite and resentment. Think about when you were a kid, how did you feel about being punished unfairly? I'm a behavior specialist and an expert on behavior modification and punishments just don't work. Plain and simple. They are flat out ineffective except maybe when it becomes severe abuse which I'm obviously not condoning. There are better ways to get desired behaviors out of teenagers but you have to choose your battles. Stop punishing your kids, drop the power struggle. Don't punish them unless you have to.
Listen - 99.9% of human beings are lousy listeners so don't take this personally. If you're a parent, you probably talk to much and you are probably a lousy listener. Teenagers listen to me because I take the time to listen to them first. If you learn the value of asking good questions and empathetic listening, you'll get much further. This helps your kids feel understood and that can make a tremendous difference.
Practice empathy and understanding - Speaking of empathy, you can never have too much. Most parents don't listen and they don't empathize. They are far too concerned about other things. Empathy with your kids is your best friend. It's okay to be a supportive friend at times. Being a supportive and empathic friend doesn't mean being an indulgent enabler. If you feel disconnected from your kids or like you don't understand them then I would strongly recommend taking some time to understand them. Turn off your ego and learn to be connected with them.
Give them permission to make mistakes and fail - I just see way to many kids that have an early onset of toxic perfectionism. I see too many parents that expect perfection. Most of them defend themselves by saying that they have "high standards" but so do I. I have very high standards, in fact I would bet that my standards and expectations for your kids is higher than yours but I also know that making mistakes is both normal and healthy. They need to be able to fail without the threat of conditional love as I mentioned before. Mistakes are wise teachers and we harm teenagers when we remove permission to make them. When a kid isn't afraid to fail, they will stop seeing limitations and start shooting for the stars.
See them as valuable, important and loveable - I tell parents to stop telling their kids that they have "potential." I hear this all the time and parents initially are confused as to why I would discourage them from telling their children and especially their sons that they have potential, here's why. Saying, "you have potential" has turned into the equivalent to saying, "I'll love, appreciate and recognize you 'when'." It's basically telling them they are a screw up. At the time of writing this I had one parent recently exclaim 'so what am I supposed to tell them then?!' That they are amazing and incredible exactly how they are. Boys are especially bombarded with messages about their worth and their value being hinged on how much money they make, how good their grades are or their ability to get in bed with girls and they simply need to be told that they are loveable and valuable simply because they exist and not how much they accomplish in life, how successful they become or how much approval they get.
Get your priorities straight - More than once, when sitting with a teen boy that had tried to end his life, a parent asks the dreaded question... "So what are we going to do about those bad grades?" I really go full pit bull in these situations. Why are grades more important than your sons life? I'm sorry, not sorry, but some parents need to hear this. Grades aren't the most important thing. If your son has good mental health, he'll get himself sorted out, including school. I also often find myself asking parents to stop caring so much about having a good family image as it contaminates your best asset as a parent, the relationship. I'm sorry, not sorry, but I just see too many parents that seem more concerned about looking like a good parent rather than being one.
Fifteen to twenty years ago the warning signs for suicide were so much more obvious but that has changed. This problem has gotten so bad that I worry every teen boy that appears to be struggling. So instead of looking for a kid who is giving away all of his belongings, now we need to look for a kid who appears to be struggling. He may have behavior problems, he may be apathetic about doing anything at all or he probably isolates a lot.
There's so much more ground to cover and so much important to work to do if you have a teen son who is struggling and so I hope that you'll give me the opportunity to help.