What do you do when you have a depressed, suicidal teenager crying out for help? Emmaline Pickering-Martin on how her whānau and community came together to help their boy.
This has been an extremely taxing year for our whānau, as it has been for so many others.
We’re lucky in many ways. We have 10 people living in our home, three generations of our whānau. The adults in our house are in employment, some full-time and some part-time. And our home is warm and dry, a luxury many don’t have. So I’m well aware of our privilege as I write this.
However, this year we’ve faced some major struggles with one of our babies — our oldest boy, who’s 15 now. In the middle of the first Covid-19 lockdown, we noticed some changes in him. He was more grumpy and easily annoyed. His father and I had separated and we were all going through the big change of figuring ourselves out and keeping ourselves together through lockdown.
This, on top of the regular teenage boy hormones meant, at least I thought it meant, that he was slightly more irritable, a little bit less sociable, and going to bed much later. Then, just after lockdown, when we were all sort of getting into a new normal, slowly transitioning our way back into the world, he started showing signs of anxiety.
Now, we know that our boy hates change. He’s been like this since he was young. He also talks too much when he’s nervous. But these signs were a little bit different. He didn’t want to do anything with the family, didn’t want to leave the house, and if we brought it up with him, he shut down completely or lashed out, yelling and slamming doors.
It was hard to watch and hard to parent through. Especially coming from a family who disciplined with force. I mean, if I ever tried to slam a door . . . well, let’s just say I valued my life growing up, so there were no doors slammed.
So it was difficult for me to know how to respond to his declining mental health.
Not long after we noticed these first signs, our boy had what we now know was a depressive episode.
He didn’t want to get up, and would sleep the entire day and most of the night, only waking from 10pm to 3am. He didn’t want to talk about anything or to anyone, and he kept to himself.
One evening, we were having a discussion (which is my code for “I was growling at him about something”) when he completely snapped. He screamed at me and was visibly extremely angry. Then he told me that he wanted to take his own life and described how he wanted to do it.
It was a moment. A fucking hard moment. In that moment, I reacted the way I’d been conditioned to react when I was growing up. Even with all my education, with my own knowledge about how to approach mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, and with everything I’d learned about positive parenting, I reacted with anger.
So here he was crying out for help in the only way he knew, and here I was overwhelmed and angry at him!
He stormed off outside (slamming that damn door again) and I stormed off upstairs (crying because frustration). That moment was all it took for us to wake up and realise that we needed to pay attention to these small changes we were noticing.
Keep in mind the changes were happening over time in a busy household with lots going on, so to be fair, they only became noticeable once he had this massive outburst and spoke his thoughts.
But it was enough.
The next morning, my sister sat on the edge of my bed and basically said what I’d been thinking all night. We need to take this seriously. We know too many people who have died by suicide to not take this seriously.
So we did.
What does suicide prevention look like in our whānau? Let’s talk about that.
I emailed my son’s dean the next day and explained the situation. The response was amazing.
Thank you for your email. I am very sorry to hear that *SON* is not well, please let us know if we can support in additional way. I will of course, email his teachers and will cc you into this. Please let *SON* know that we are all supporting him and will do whatever he needs to help him transition back to school when he feels he can.
The school then got behind us and supported every single decision we made as a whānau — which they have continued to do. All of his teachers have been the right amount of kind and firm with him. They have given him time and space, they have sent work home, they have sent supportive emails, and they have, most importantly, taken the situation seriously.
That’s been especially impressive considering he wasn’t the best behaved student before this year, and he definitely isn’t the best behaved student to this day. However, they’ve been consistent in their support, discipline, and CARE — and that consistency has made a huge difference. That is suicide prevention.
Next, I called a youth counselling service and enrolled him in counselling. It was during the time where everything had to be online, so Zoom counselling was the only option we had until the counselling services were able to see people in person.
We filled out the form together and submitted it and we were accepted for six funded sessions. They sent us a list of providers and we went through them together. We chose one that he was comfortable with and made contact. However, they didn’t get back to us for four weeks. In that time, he’d made up his mind that he didn’t want to see a counsellor over Zoom and wanted to wait until he could do it in person.
Supporting his decision, we waited until the in-person service was available. That is suicide prevention.
Our family dropped everything to make sure people were home with him every day to keep an eye on his moods and his behaviour and his actions. His Nana had travelled back from Australia and supported us in this. His Papa had chats with him every single day about life and laughs and love. His aunty cooked with him and laughed with him and did the weird things they do together every day. His uncle took him for brutal workouts (IYKYK league trainings). His dad took him for brutal workouts too (poor kid).
We are very privileged to have been able to pour all our attention and energy into him in lots of different ways. I was still the PARENT, however, and kept up the regular growlings for teenage boy attitude and not doing chores while he was being showered in love. This is suicide prevention.
He was allowed to do things he enjoyed, with boundaries. He got to play his PS4 on a school night as long as he hung the washing and brought it in. He was allowed to hang out with his friends at the park, as long as we knew who he was with, and where, and he had to answer the phone if we called or texted.
He was allowed to eat noodles at midnight if that’s how he felt as long as he cleaned up. He was, I think most importantly, also allowed to not go back to school until he was comfortable with his own emotions and how he expressed them.
He was allowed to talk without interruption (even if he was pissing us right off). He was able to express his feelings and know that we wouldn’t judge or growl or invalidate them. This is suicide prevention.
Having a support network of adults as a parent was absolutely crucial in getting through the “parenting” side of this. Being able to openly discuss mental health issues within our own family meant that we could make the most of whānau as a resource to help our boy.
Having friends that I could message or call, who let me unload my own mamae around the situation, meant that I could be the best mum for him.
Having friends and whānau who work in the mental health sector meant that I had access to information and ways to help him.
Having other adults who understood that sometimes I just needed a cry too was crucial because you start to question everything you’ve ever done and said. And I had done and said A LOT that was probably not the greatest, but having people there to hold me up was key. This is suicide prevention.
We are now, I believe, in a space where we can confidently say he is much better. He has worked very hard on communication and honesty when it comes to his feelings. There have been many sleepless nights on my part. But having a supportive whānau and school and wider community made a huge difference to this outcome.
Suicide prevention is bigger than just these things we managed to do. Suicide prevention is multi-faceted and ongoing. While we’re lucky enough to have a somewhat functioning mental health system in Aotearoa, the truth is it’s really hard to access.
Our experience in what we consider a very privileged position tells me that we still have a long way to go in terms of youth services, especially in crisis.
The whole process of trying to find a service that was available, affordable, and accessible for us was daunting. We had no idea where to go with a teenager who was suicidal. We had no idea who to talk to or how to even find a service. It was scary and new and SLOW. A week-long wait after submitting forms for help. Then a four-week wait until someone contacted us to help. Then another three-week wait, until we were able to see anyone in person.
That is two whole months of waiting. If we didn’t have the education or support, it could have been much worse.
The government’s Inquiry into Mental Health and Addictions in 2018 noted that young people were suffering more across the country for many reasons. The inquiry panel made recommendations around ensuring easily accessible help for people who need it straight away. They also pointed out that people providing mental health services can’t do their jobs properly if they’re under-resourced.
All these things are still true today, two years on.
Sure, we have the 24/7 helpline, which is excellent in moments of crisis for individuals, and it’s relatively easy to access instant help by texting 1737. But what about whānau? What if we can’t access that line? What if our babies need counselling services ASAP? What if we need help as a whānau now?
The government spent big money on the inquiry and, sure, they’ve made some changes, but are these changes filtering down to us on the ground? Are they working? Are we able to access services easier? And are those services effective?
My answer to these questions from my own experience and the experience of those I know is: No!
Suicide prevention in our whānau was our whānau doing it ourselves, with the support of friends and the wider community. And that’s fine. We got through it, our boy is doing well, and we’re very grateful.
But what about those who can’t do it themselves, those who don’t have support or a wider community network? What is suicide prevention for our most marginalised?
I don’t have all the answers. But my whānau’s experience tells me that we have a long way to go in this country to prevent the mamae of suicide in our communities.
(This piece was written with Emmaline’s son’s permission and input.)
Where to get help:
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Helplines for children and young people
What’s Up: 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, 12noon–11pm, and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available Monday to Friday from 1pm–10pm and Saturday and Sunday from 3pm–10pm.
Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.
Help for parents, family, and friends:
Parent Help: 0800 568 856 for parents/whānau seeking support, advice and practical strategies on all parenting concerns. Anonymous, non-judgmental and confidential.
Family Services 211 Helpline: 0800 211 211 for help finding (and direct transfer to) community-based health and social support services in your area.
Skylight: Skylight’s specialised services support children, young people, and their whānau, to navigate through times of trauma, loss and grief. They aim to provide the right help, at the right time, in the right way.
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