A harrowing account of what it’s like trying to save your child from suicide, and the toll it takes on everyone involved.
This essay discusses suicide in detail. Please proceed with caution.
Last week there was a lot of stuff shared around suicide awareness, and I wanted to share something as well, but I also wanted to wait until all the self indulgent “reach out” “my door is always open” “my kettle is always on” posts were out of the way first.
See, putting the onus to reach out onto someone in such a state of mind that they want to end their life is more than a little naive, and can feel very empty. My daughter can’t even reach out from two doors down the hall.
Let me tell you what suicide awareness truly looks like, from the eyes of a parent whose child has made five attempts in the last 19 months.
Suicide awareness means you don’t sleep. It means in the weeks following an attempt, or any time you are worried (which is always), setting your alarm for every hour through the night, so you can go check that your child is not only breathing, but that the rate and depth of her breath doesn’t show any tell-tale signs of an overdose. It means never truly sleeping soundly again, sleeping with your door open, and that any noise or text message during the night makes you feel physically ill until you can confirm everything is OK.
Suicide awareness means becoming a prisoner in your own home. Because for large periods of time, you can’t leave them home alone at all. So you have to stop doing the things that fill your cup. Your other children miss days of school. You can’t take them to school or to join up for sports or other groups, because the depressed teen you have at home will not leave the house with you, and they can’t be left unsupervised. It means missing doctor appointments, your own counselling appointments, the gym, your job, seeing friends (ha), going to the supermarket. Sometimes you’re even scared to shower because of how unavailable it makes you for that period of time.
How do people who cannot stay home manage? People who have to work? Ask the service meant to support you about this and they’ll reply “they usually have to quit their jobs”.
Because there’s no respite care available. And the unit in Starship is very difficult to access, especially with a child who is not getting any better and has had multiple attempts, because when the service makes multiple referrals to them “it looks like we aren’t doing our job properly”, so they stop referring. Another reason they won’t help you access respite care? Because they “don’t want to give her what she wants”. Which is what exactly? A safe place where she can escape for a few days, where she can be watched by someone other than me? Maybe speak to someone outside of her usual circle of ‘prison wardens’? Heaven forbid the family might also need respite. Because who needs sleep? Right?
Suicide awareness means you see everything in your home as a means of ending a life. EVERYTHING. And because we know how sometimes it can be an act of impulsiveness, you have this bag called the ‘suicide bag’ (pictured) where you put everything around the house (mostly medications and other impulse items you see lying around) that could be used to end a life. This bag goes everywhere with you. School drop-offs and pickups, trips to the gym, the shower, everywhere. And if said suicidal child is in the car with you and you have to go in to the supermarket or an appointment, or to grab the kids from class, that bag goes into those places with you. You’re literally carrying the weight of knowing that your child wants to die around the supermarket, or through a school. It means that your daily meds are locked away in a small safe, and you have to put the key in a new place every day. So every now and then you can’t remember which spot you used and you end up missing doses of much needed medication, until you find it again.
Suicide awareness means never really knowing and so never being able to relax or become complacent. Sometimes you can see that something isn’t right, and your guard goes up, and maybe you prevent it by being super vigilant that day. Or maybe everything is going brilliantly, she’s so chatty and happy, has had an amazing week and is excited about something coming up. She’s spent lots of time with friends and is saving up for a new piercing. She has dinner and goes into her room to watch TV, and two hours later you’re loading her into an ambulance. Again.
Suicide awareness means relationship breakdowns. It means people pulling away because you don’t have any time for them, you’re always sad/scared/angry, you aren’t taking care of yourself, you aren’t showing up for anyone else. You become a shit friend. A shit partner. A shit parent to your other kids. You don’t notice when big things happen in the lives of your people, because you can’t see past your own front door.
Suicide awareness means failing your other children. Your son is starting to lose his spark, and he doesn’t even tell you about events at school anymore because he knows you can’t come and doesn’t want to make you feel bad.
The stress levels in the home are always high. A seven year old living in a state of fight or flight can only manage that for so long, and is starting to develop severe anxiety, and is unable to regulate his emotional reactions. You can’t sleep at all now because you’re terrified that in a few years you will be back here again, but with him. Your partner is also struggling to cope, and because you both cope differently, the space between you widens. The resentment builds every time he leaves the house for work, and you watch him drive away from behind your lounge windows that may as well have bars on them.
Suicide awareness means thinking about funerals and eulogies for your child as you walk around the supermarket. It means never letting your other kids enter the house or her bedroom first, just in case, because you absolutely cannot have them be the ones to find her dead.
Suicide awareness means blame. Blaming yourself for everything you have ever done or said that could have fueled this fire. For needing the medications that she used for that attempt. For asking the wrong questions and not knowing the right ones. It’s not just self blame though, oh no. You see messages from estranged family members that blame you too, messages threatening to have your kids taken away just for needing the meds you’re on, and because you obviously shouldn’t have kids if one of them is so unhappy she wants to die. It means sitting in the hospital and dealing with shaming and blaming comments from certain staff members or service providers. Laying formal complaints when someone tells your child that they’re taking up a bed needed by someone who is actually sick. Fighting anyone who tries to make your kid feel bad for feeling bad, all the while believing everything they say when it’s directed at you. It means sitting in the offices of the only service we have for youth mental health, and being made to feel like you are the problem, as well as the only one expected to do anything to change the situation. Jumping through every hoop they throw at you, and still being treated like the one to blame and carry the weight of it all. Having buzzwords like “we treat the whole family unit” thrown around, only to find out very quickly that they really don’t care about anyone else in the family at all.
Suicide awareness means not reaching out around you for help, not letting on what is going on, because you want to protect your child as much as possible, and that means keeping things as private as possible. So you struggle through, the best you can, and try to be everything your family needs. And fail.
Suicide awareness means trying to protect your child from the fact that all of that is happening, and just trying to lift them up and show them how amazing they are and that they deserve life, in its fullest. All the while fighting off increasing depressive and suicidal thoughts of your own, and feeling guilty about feeling that way, because you know exactly what it would cost those around you if they found out.
Suicide awareness means ALWAYS being aware. Always asking questions and checking in, and never waiting for them to reach out to you, because they may never reach out, and then it’s too late. Because we know that with every attempt they survive, the risk of a fatality increases.
Suicide awareness means putting aside how all of that makes you feel, because the life of your child outweighs every single bit of it, and putting absolutely everything you’ve got into fighting for your kid’s life.
Where to get help
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.
Samaritans – 0800 726 666.
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Counselling for children and young people
independent journalism happen!Find Out More
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.
For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and carry out more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.