Warning: This article is about suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
Throughout the Herald's Break The Silence series about youth suicide, we have published first-person pieces from individuals closely related to the issue and experts in the field. Today, registered psychologist David Stebbing offers some tips for communication with children. In his own words:
As a psychologist who sees a number of young people and their families, I can safely say I'm working in a growth industry. Our practice of both psychiatrists and psychologists, which is one of the largest in the country, is struggling to keep pace with demand.
If I was engaged in a different sector I'm sure this would be wonderful news. However, given the nature of my work it is hard to feel self-congratulatory.
A proportion of this increase is attributable to an increase in help-seeking behaviour. That's great news.
I fear, though, that much of the demand is due simply to an increase in the need for mental health services for young people and families.
It is no secret that the public mental health services are stretched. Good people, limited resources.
I am aware through my engagement with both the Family Court and Oranga Tamariki - (formerly Child Youth and Family), that these providers are also under significant pressure.
I suspect there are various others in both the public and not-for-profit sectors who are singing off the same songsheet. But why is this so?
It would be myopic to lay all the responsibility at the feet of the state providers. Many of the parents and teenagers I meet are also significantly impacted by the rigors of modern life. Adolescents whose parents complain that their once-active child now exists more in a virtual world than a real one.
Online bullying and, thankfully less frequently, predation, can render a young person powerless and distressed. Increasing competition for places in popular tertiary programmes, with the related anxieties of being "good enough", or "not". Exposure and frequently access to the more pernicious illicit drugs. Time-poor parents struggling to find the time to meet their children's emotional and social needs, let alone their own. Economic hardship. The list could go on.
In this context, I am unsurprisingly seeing a rise in the number of adolescents presenting at my clinic with diagnosable mental health disorders, most commonly a mood or anxiety disorder.
Although usually highly treatable, these conditions by their very nature exact a cruel burden of psychic pain on a young person, one that also tends to reverberate through their immediate family.
Obviously the most jarring outcome of all for a family with a young person with mental health struggles is when that young person takes their own life.
The result of this is not experienced merely as a reverberation through the family but is better described as a seismic shock.
In all my years of practice I have never seen, and frankly can't imagine seeing, anyone more devastated than a parent who has lost his or her child to suicide.
So what can a parent or family member do to endeavour to protect their loved one from making the ultimate choice, or hopefully, even getting to a point where suicide is being seen as a viable option?
I believe that always trying to see the world though the eyes of your child is invaluable.
This doesn't translate to a lessening of boundaries or giving them the old line, "Well when I was your age...". Rather it is about accurately imagining what it's like to be them and letting them know that's what you're trying to do without telling them how they do or should feel.
This is most important when the message you're giving doesn't accord with the wishes of your, probably by this point, rather agitated teen. In short, expressed empathy matters.
I once recall saying to my daughter that something that seemed trivial to me "didn't matter" to which she quietly responded, "it does to me". Physician heal thyself!
It is also important to try to keep the channels of communication open. This can call for a degree of creativity at times, for example touching base via a brief text message or email rather than waiting for a face-to-face discussion.
Furthermore, a young person is often more likely to confide in a trusted aunty/uncle, grandparent or family friend before they will talk to a parent, so having these resources on hand can be invaluable.
I have just started watching the much talked-about Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, which is centred around the suicide of an adolescent girl. (A series, incidentally, that I have very mixed views about.)
As someone who enjoys my work with young people I have found myself cringing, as the writers had planned, at some of the attempts by parents to communicate with their teens.
Good communication is about timing, listening, topic selection and managing our own difficult and often reactive emotions.
In this vein, it's useful for us to practice the mantra "be reflective not reflexive". It's also about tone, intent, readiness, pitching to the right level, clarity and mutual understanding.
It's about being relevant and interesting to the listener. With teens it's also about letting them know that you don't know everything and that you're imperfect in a way that isn't designed to guilt trip them.
Sometimes it's about knowing when to stop communicating if it's clear that nothing positive can come out of the discussion; at that particular point in time anyway.
There are no easy answers to parenting, or to being a teenager for that matter. I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, "If you meet a mother you meet someone with guilt". As a father I concluded they were half right.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.