A little over five years ago, my teenage son walked into my room and simply asked “Mom, can we talk?” He’d been suffering for a while - alone and in silence - with depression. He’d finally found the words to tell us. So much has happened since that night– it’s amazing what happens when you find the support, the courage and the words to open up to the ones who love you.
In the years since, we become vocal mental health advocates on a mission to remove the shame and stigma around depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. We want people to know they are not alone – we want to get them talking so they no longer have to suffer in silence.
When I speak publicly about our journey one of the things people want to know is “What helped to make it better – what happened after that night your son told you he was depressed?” I’m not a therapist but I’m a mom who went through this with her son, and I’m happy to share what helped our family in the hope that it helps your family…
Therapy – for our son, my husband and me. I know it’s expensive and can take time to find the right person but this was absolutely the best thing we did. If your child was injured or seriously ill and needed immediate medical attention you would find the best experts and figure out a way to pay for it. This is no different. It can take time and several tries to find an expert who is the right fit but this is an absolute critical first step. We all need someone we can talk to honestly and openly without shame or judgment – seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness. It’s a safe place where each of us could discuss our deepest and sometimes darkest feelings and learn to work through those and how to talk to each other in a supportive way. Your pediatrician may be able to recommend someone – someone who is skilled working with kids/teens/young adults.
While giving a talk, a parent in the audience shared this – she said she has been talking her kids for a yearly “checkup” with a therapist just like she takes them to their pediatrician each year. LOVE this! This is absolutely something I would be doing if I had young children – it normalizes talking about mental health and they have someone they are already comfortable if they need help!
Medication – only an expert physician can determine if medication would be helpful – this should at least be one avenue to explore. We went into this knowing that trial and error is part of it, and you have to be patient and honest about its effectiveness. Again, you wouldn’t hesitate if a trusted doctor recommended medication – whether temporarily or ongoing – for a medical issue you or your child was experiencing. Sometimes medication helps enough so that you can figure out coping skills and other ways to work through the depression. It can put a floor on the sadness or help you “feel” again – either way it could be what is needed to get to a better place. Just be open.
Talking - If only we could read their thoughts (and take their pain) it would be so much easier. Starting the conversation was just the beginning - then we had to learn how to help him, how to communicate and how to support him. We all had to find the words because until then, we hadn't needed them. Our son felt confused because in his mind he “should be happy” – he had a bright, beautiful future ahead and a loving, supportive family. Once we started talking, he was able to express this feeling and we had some amazingly frank discussions about depression.
Memes about depression –We wanted to know how he was doing but you can’t repeatedly ask someone – “How are you today – are you ok?” “Are you happy now?” So we had to find new ways to communicate and check in. So, I looked online for images/memes about depression. One said – “If you could read my mind, you’d be in tears.” Another said –“Saying ‘I’m tired’ when you’re actually sad.” And one of my favorites – “Sometimes, you just can’t tell anybody how you really feel. Not because you don’t know your purpose, not because you don’t trust them, but because you can’t find the right words to make them understand.” I’d print them, cut them out and then take them to my son’s room. I’d put them on his desk and gently ask – “Does it feel like this?” He’d answer and it would start us talking. Sometimes I would just leave uplifting messages/memes for him – hoping it would speak to him or help in some way.
Sharing Things That Inspired Us – We needed many ways to stay connected as we worked through this together so we would share inspirational pieces we found. For example - Shane Koyczan "Instructions for a Bad Day" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7OGY1Jxp3o) - my son and I watched the video together shortly after he asked for help. It is really beautiful and uplifting – we found Shane’s writings very thought provoking and inspiring. I’d find things and share them with him then he’d find things for me. We’d email or text them to each other – a nice way to stay connected.
Music - I listened to the music he was listening to – Linkin Park was a favorite at the time – their lyrics described how he felt. We had to find multiple ways to communicate – and listening to his music helped me “get inside his head.” Music is an expression of our thoughts and feelings so listening to what he was listening to gave me great insight I otherwise wouldn’t have had. “I Can See Clearly Now The Rain is Gone” (Hothouse Flowers version) became a favorite when things were better.
Meditation and Other Things That Made Us Feel Calm and at Peace – I found the app Insight Timer (https://insighttimer.com/) helped me find peace and quiet and escape to a calm place in my mind (there are a lot of great meditation apps available). My son found meditation and mindfulness helped him as well – it stilled his mind. Quieting your mind – even for a few minutes a day – has amazing healing benefits. No need to sit for hours trying to find inner peace, just take some time to slow everything down and just breathe. Guided meditations work best for me so – having someone talking while I’m relaxing helped quiet my thoughts. Other people find they meditate best while walking their dog or being out in nature – find what works for you but at least give it a try.
We also liked acupuncture, therapeutic massage, talking in nature, journaling (being able to put your emotions into words was extremely cathartic), and cooking together are just a few examples – find what works for you and your family and be open to trying new things!
Websites and communities - The Mighty (themighty.com) is one but there are many. I found NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) (https://www.nami.org/Home) and instantly felt a connection to the uplifting community. If you look, you’ll find some that resonate with you.
Forgiving myself – as parents we sometimes look for someone to blame – and we usually blame ourselves. This one was tough for me because I blamed myself for not knowing and I also wondered if the genetics in my family or my husband’s could be to blame. It was painful to think that I could have in some way caused or contributed to my son’s suffering. I honestly thought I would have known if he was depressed – and we are a close family, so I was blindsided when he told us. I had to get over this because it wasn’t helping anyone – especially me.
Becoming okay with living in the unknown – I like to know there is a happy ending on the horizon but this wasn’t a book that I could skip to the end. I had to live in the unknown and be okay with that. I can’t say that I got comfortable with it but I did learn to be ok with it.
One more note – honestly, knowing if he was “ok” was hard because it wasn’t like there was a drastic change – I hadn’t known there was something wrong in the first place so how was I going to know when it was ok? It was gradual but soon he was saying things like “I feel again.” “It doesn’t seem so dark anymore.” He wasn’t saying “I’m tired” much anymore. He definitely seemed lighter and more relaxed as he got ready to leave for college. Seeing his Dear World photo when he went off to college was the real indication that he was ok – seeing him and knowing that he was sharing his story. Though I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath, I felt like I could finally exhale.
Also, my son wanting me to share it with his story with his photo and the overwhelming response to it really helped with our recovery – we are so grateful to all who have shared it and reached out!
I hope this helps your family – please know that you not alone. There is hope and abundant love and support – you just have to take that first step and ask for help. And if you’re the one being asked to help, lean in and listen carefully. Be deliberate in your response and let your loved one know that you’ve “got them” and you will be there with them on this journey no matter what