The first time my son told me he wanted to die, he was ten-years-old.
We were in the car, listening to music, and with big, sweet, young eyes, he looked at me in the rear view mirror and said,”I really don’t want to live anymore. I just want to be dead.”
An icy dread spread throughout my body.
I knew he had been depressed. I knew some of his chronic abdominal issues were taking a toll. But I had no idea that my sweet, innocent, cuddly little boy was contemplating suicide.
Could a ten-year-old really be suicidal?
A year later, after two failed medicines and three doctors, he made his first attempt.
For months we had been working on coping skills, redirecting thoughts of self-harm, and locking up every knife, pair of scissors and medicine in the house.
In a sudden haze of despair and pain, my son screamed at his brother and I that we didn’t understand. He yelled that we would never know how bad it is to be him. Then he went into his room, took the sheet off of his bed and tried to strangle himself with it.
I stopped him. We both cried. I set-up an appointment with his therapist. Things calmed down.
Just a few weeks later, he got his hands on a little pairing knife I had been using to cut-up an apple for his snack. He placed it to his throat as he walked towards me. Terrified, I talked him through putting the little green handled knife down on the counter.
With an angry red mark on his neck, he was hospitalized for seven days.
When we returned home, I threw away that green handled knife. I couldn’t stand the flood of fear that enveloped me every time I saw it.
Last year, he began begging me to leave the knives unlocked or the medicine bottles opened.
More than once, he pleaded with me to please kill him. “If you loved me, you would help me. You would realize that all of this stuff you are doing is not helping. Please, let me go.”
No mother should ever hear her child beg to die.
There have been seasons in all of this, to be sure. Times when things seem calm. Times when he enjoys his dog, his friends and his life.
One day to the next can bring fun and joy. Even one hour to the next can go from total despair to pure joy. His level of depression is hard to gauge and even harder to help.
Last week, my son told me that no matter what I do, he will kill himself one day.
“When I am 18 and you are no longer in charge of me, I will do it,” he said as matter-of-factly as asking for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.
“That is exactly why we are working so had right now. We are figuring out how best to help you and how you can help yourself so that when you are an adult, you don’t feel so overwhelmed with all these feelings. My goal is that even if you still think about it sometimes, when you are an adult you will know what to do and you will know that you have people who love you and will help you no matter what.”
“We’ll see,” he said.
When your ten-year-old, eleven-year-old, twelve-year-old, is suicidal, your broken heart lives in a perpetual state of what-if.
What if he tries again?
What if he succeeds?
What if he has to be hospitalized again?
What if the medicines never work?
What if the insurance won’t pay for his out-patient program?
What if I lose my baby?
How Do We Help A Child In Crisis?
This a tremendous understatement. The fact is interventions are almost nonexistent for children under the age of 13.
Let me give you an example –
After homeopathic, pharmaceutical and therapeutic approaches have been implemented, your only option is a trip to the ER. This is literally the only place to go when your child is actively suicidal.
When you arrive, they immediately place your child on a “hold.” This means your child will be watched carefully to ensure his or her safety. It also means you no longer have the ability to take your child home, until the hold is lifted.
The hold requires that your child be placed in a special room with no accessible electrical outlets or anything that can cause harm. Your child will be required to wear a different colored gown than all the rest of the children, to alert staff that there is an increased security need. He will not be allowed to close the door when using the bathroom and a guard will stand outside. It feels a lot like a prison documentary.
Remember, all of this, for a ten-year-old in despair on possibly the worst day of his young life.
Add to it the sensory input of the scratchy gown that smells like bleach, the overwhelming fluorescent lights, the constant beeps, and cries of other children and you get a full-on nightmare for most overstimulated, dysregulated children.
It feels like the absolute worst place to take a child in crisis.
Hours pass. A mental health professional will separate you from your child and ask you so many questions your head will spin. The same professional will spend time alone with your child in an attempt to determine, not how to best help your child, but if your child remains a danger to himself and/or others.
More hours pass.
Eventually, one of two things happen. They determine the hold should be lifted because your child is no longer in any danger, or they move to admit your child to an inpatient psych ward that likely does not yet have any pediatric beds available.
If there are no beds available, you and your child wait in the ER, under the observation hold, until one opens up.
The last time we were in the ER, there were seven children already there waiting for beds in the ward. Some had been in the ER for more than 48 hours.
One day, I hope to write about what happens when your child is actually hospitalized, but I just can’t yet. Some things take so much time to process. Leaving your child in a pediatric psychiatric hospital is definitely one of them.
Can A Ten-Year-Old Be Suicidal?
The answer is yes.
But the ramifications of this question are harrowing and endless.
We see mental health as a failing on the part of the suffering person and those around them.
When an adult commits suicide, everyone says the same thing and asks the same questions.
How could we not have seen?
It was such a selfish choice. She left behind a child.
He had so much to live for.
We post on social media and remind each other to check in on your loved ones.
We act as though this is something we can easily control.
Add a child to the mix and the shame, stigma and disconnect is even greater.
Maybe he’s just manipulating you with the threat.
You need to get her into treatment.
If he were my child…
The truth is, unless you have lived through your own suicidal depression or perhaps, lived with and walked closely with someone who has, it is impossible to truly understand the layers of brain chemistry, behavioral choices and patterns that lead a person to want to die.
Is seems unfathomable that a parent would take his or her life and a child behind.
It is impossible to understand how a mom is able to calmly talk to her youngest son about his latest idea for how to die, when all she wants to do is scream, “How do I help my baby?”
It is completely surreal when a ten-year-old, who should be out playing in the sprinklers with his friends, is instead locked in room with cinder block walls and no accessible windows in the name of keeping him safe.
There is however, one thing that I know to be true after my family’s experience –
The closer you are to this, the more you see that mental health should not be treated any differently than physical health. Even more so, you see that they are essentially one and the same.
I wish I could change almost every single thing we do to help children who have mental health issues.
I have learned that I simply cannot. This is so much bigger than any one sweet, animal loving, blue-eyed little boy.
So, for now, I pray for my son and for all the little ones just like him.
I cry for my son and the childhood I wish he had.
I worry about how this all ends.
And I keep fighting.
Shawna Wingert is a former training and development professional turned education specialist, and has homeschooled her two children for the last ten years.Shawna has written four books about homeschooling unique learners and has been featured in homeschooling discussions on Today.com, The Mighty, Simple Homeschool, My Little Poppies and Raising Lifelong Leaners.
You can find her online here at DifferentByDesignLearning.com.