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Portland, OR
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I exist to help dads learn to communicate and engage with their young adult daughters.  I provide resources from my vast amounts of research and experience with dads and daughters, and this is the place where you'll find the tools you need to become the hero you've always wanted to be.

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How to Talk with Your Daughter about Suicide

Michelle Watson

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Hello friends…This is the longest blog I’ve ever written, but with this topic being in the forefront of our minds due to recent events, I have chosen to address this topic thoroughly. I pray that my story and this information will be helpful to you.
–-Michelle

 “How could she do this when she had everything going for her? It honestly makes no sense that she would end her life because she has a global empire and actually just launched her new clothing line today! Look here---I have ‘Kate Spade’ everything---sunglasses, wallet, and even my school bag is her brand. You remember that she’s the reason I want to go into fashion, right?”
 
These emotional words poured forth from the depths of her 17-year old broken and confused heart as we began our counseling session that Tuesday. Our appointment was only hours after she’d heard the news that her beloved icon hanged herself that morning in NYC. And though we were having this conversation 3000 miles away from the tragic epicenter, she felt the impact personally, as if she’d lost a close friend.
 
Beyond that, neither of us had any way of knowing that only three days later we would grieve another tragic suicide by hanging, that of Anthony Bourdain, internationally acclaimed celebrity chef and television host. 
 
Then, as if these tragic deaths weren’t devastating enough, the story took a heart-wrenching turn when I learned that both of these influencers left young daughters behind, 13-year old Francis Beatrix Spade and 11-year old Ariane Bourdain. One who will now be raised solely by her widower father while the other will grow up without the loving guidance of her adored dad. 
 
All I can say is that two suicides in a row are two suicides too many.
 
As you can imagine, I’ve had similar raw conversations in my counseling office around this theme since these two individuals passed. One of my clients even expressed her fear that she now wonders whether she’s strong enough to resist her own suicidal urges. She said that if celebrities still commit suicide despite having access to the best resources in the world, then how can she trust herself to withstand the emotional gale force winds that regularly pound within her?
 
Dr. Margo Maine captures it best: statistics are people with the tears wiped away.” Her poignant way of expressing the human reality behind the numbers is underscored by the shocking fact that suicide rates have increased in the US by 25% in the past two decades, according to the CDC.

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I’ve heard it said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. True as that is, when someone has suffered for years, the enduring pain doesn’t necessarily feel temporary.

Additionally, when someone has lived with physical or mental torment for a long period of time, it can significantly alter different areas of their brain. When the limbic system (our emotional center) is over-stimulated and “on fire,” it releases substantial levels of stress hormones, which then flood the frontal lobe (where we make decisions and activate sound judgment), leading to that part of the brain being “offline.”
 
Consequently, these individuals often find it hard to believe there will ever be an end to their agony, resulting in a genuine struggle to think clearly when it comes to problem solving and working through their distress. All they want is for the pain to end.
 
I haven’t shared a lot publicly about my past mental health struggles (though God has opened more doors the past few years to tell my story), but the truth is that I’ve lived through years of internal distress that were locked inside me until my late 30’s. In fact, I was in counseling for eight straight years and it was an excruciating process of going back into my trauma history to face all the layers of impact from sexual and spiritual abuse.
 
Trust me when I say that I hated putting my time, money, and energy into weekly therapy when all I wanted to do was spend my time, money, and energy on anything but therapy. 
 
But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. 

  • I now look back and know that investing in counseling was my way of putting value on myself
  • I now look back and know that the costs on every level were necessary to my healing.
  • I now look back and know that I had to feel to heal.
  • I now look back and know that the only way out is through.
  • I now look back and know that I am a survivor, not a victim.

The hope-filled reality is that our brains can heal. I’m living proof of that fact! (Here are two excellent articles that confirm this: 1. on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity and 2. on posttraumatic growth.)
 
More specifically with regards to my healing journey, I can honestly tell you that the torment I used to experience in my mind and emotions is no longer therewhich translates to more calm and clarity. Of course I still have times of over-reacting, worrying, and the like, but overall there’s a settledness and true peace. Now I have the freedom to passionately move in ways that are in line with my God-given calling after years of feeling like I was going in circles despite my best efforts.
 
Also, I can confidently assert that the dissociative wiring inside my brain has been re-wired. Now I am grateful to experience an internally associated life without mental torment or dividedness. What this also means is that I am fully present to what I think and feel, and I have consistent joy that actually stays and holds! (If that sounds too good to be true or seems like it could never happen to you, I want to encourage you by saying that if healing could happen for me, it can happen for you too. Yes, it’s hard work…but it’s worth it in the end!)
 
Now let’s make this practical and personal. 
 
What do you do as a dad if you have a daughter you suspect may be suicidal? 
 
I’ll tell you some truths that have guided my responses to this question. When I started grad school in 1995, I wasn’t sure what to do or say if a counseling client admitted to being suicidal. But I can tell you that I was greatly comforted to learn key insights about navigating this complex topic, insights that still guide me as a clinician 21 years later:

  1. It’s good to initiate the topic of suicide if you have even the slightest concern about someone, which will help that person know that it’s safe to talk openly with you. (Asking about suicide won’t plant the idea in their minds about it, but instead gives them permission to talk because “the cat’s out of the bag,” and they weren’t the one to initiate the conversation).
  2. It’s good to disclose that you would be devastated if that person ever took their own life, including why it would matter to you. (I’ve teared up many times when disclosing my heart to suicidal clients, and typically this helps them release their tears while feeling that someone genuinely cares. Experts say that sometimes the individual will stay alive more for someone else than for themselves, and because I want to do everything possible to communicate compassionate care, I always remember this fact). 
  3. It’s good to ask whether they feel like they want to die or if they have a suicide plan---because those are two different things. If there is a plan in place, you must take immediate action to contract regarding their safety, call their support network, or discuss hospitalization. (By asking the straight-forward question, “are you suicidal?” you are encouraging honesty. You also want to watch their body language because it also will significantly reveal what’s going on inside. Remember that it’s worth risking their anger at you for intervening in order to get them the help they truly need).

There’s one more important aspect to this topic that merits addressing. 

If we read the accounts from friends and family after they’ve lost a loved one, rarely, if ever, did any of them know the situation was dire prior to the catastrophic event. This has been repeatedly confirmed by those who interacted with Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as well as with those who knew Robin Williams four years ago and 28-year old Avicii recently. The pattern with all of them appears to be consistent: the pain is easy to hide and “putting on a good face” is an act, not their reality. This tells me that it’s wisdom to know what to look for so there is greater symptom awareness to reveal if someone may be sinking into despair.
 
Here are signs that could signal a deeper intensity than meets the eye (be sure to look and listen for these things in groupings, not individually):

  • Withdrawal/more isolation (when someone feels desperate and alone, it’s easy to push people away because they don’t have the energy or capacity to engage and talk)
  • Changes in sleeping patterns (a lot more or a lot less)
  • Lack of enjoyment in activities that used to bring joy
  • Depression (especially when the chronic sadness has lasted for more than two months)
  • Feelings of hopelessness (listen for anything that sounds like they’re giving up or saying that life isn’t worth living anymore)
  • Self-injurious behaviors (which, in and of themselves, aren’t always a cry for help, but when paired with other symptoms, are worth noting---whether cutting, reckless sexual activity, excessive spending, or anything where caution is thrown to the wind)
  • Increases in substance use/addictive behaviors (use of drugs, alcohol, gaming, or eating disorders, to name a few, can be used to numb pain, particularly if other coping strategies aren’t working well or haven’t yet been learned)
  • Cancelling appointments/not keeping commitments (this could be a sign of disconnection from people or from causes that used to have value)
  • Lack of motivation (particularly in areas that once brought a sense of purpose and meaning)
  • Friends or public figures recently committing suicide (when someone is battling with suicidal thoughts, there is power in suggestion when there was a “successful” end to someone’s pain)

Take a big deep breath. (I’m serious).
 
Dad, I realize that this topic is heavy and intense. And I know this is a lot to take in. I acknowledge that it may be something you don’t want to talk about or look at. But you have to meet your daughter where she is at because the world she lives in is impacted all too often by suicide. Out of love for your daughter, you need to delve into these depths with her so she’s not left to tread these waters alone. 

 

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Please believe me when I say that talking with her about what she’s feeling and fearing will go a long way to helping her release questions and emotions inside herself while being able to gain perspective from you in the process. 

If you want to initiate a conversation with your daughter about the topic of suicide, here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Let her read this blog and ask if anything resonates with her, whether experiences or thoughts she’s having now or has had in the past.
  2. Gently, yet boldly, ask, “Are you suicidal or have you ever been suicidal?” If she’s not struggling in this area, she most likely won’t be reactive. If she has a strong negative reaction, it could suggest that she’s hiding something from you…and even from herself. 
  3. Watch together Anderson Cooper’s town hall on suicide that recently aired (6.24.18).
  4. Let her know your story if you or someone you know has ever struggled with being suicidal or had suicidal thoughts. Though you may think you’re protecting her by not sharing about your past, the reality is that you are modeling that pain can be worked through and there is life on the other side. Let her know what you did to cope and what you wish you’d done differently. I assure you that your story will give her hope and she’ll entrust you with more of hers because she’ll trust that you won’t judge her since you’ve been through it yourself.
  5. Never get angry with her for disclosing that she’s feeling suicidal or struggling in this area. Never let your fear or sadness be expressed as frustration or anger. Never tell her she’s being stupid or foolish to want to end her life. Only show compassion and empathy. Listen hard and listen well. 
  6. Put your money where your heart [treasure] is. Offer to pay for counseling. Tell her that you will do everything possible to find her a good counselor (by calling her insurance company for her, asking for referrals from friends, offering to drive her to appointments or to pay for Uber or Lyft to transport her if she’s unable to drive herself).
  7. Assure her that if she ever has suicidal thoughts, urges, or a plan that you want her to call you 24/7. Let her know you will find a way to connect with her or get her help at any time, day or night, if she is at that point of intensity, feeling hopeless and all alone. 

Though this was a lot to take in, the truth is that there’s still a lot more that I could say! But at the same time it feels like there’s just not enough words to truly capture all that I want to say. So I’ll close with one my favorite acronyms for HOPE: Hold On, Pain Ends. 
 
Wait, I do have one more thing to add! 
 
The truest truth I can leave you with is this: Jesus and Abba Father God will hold your daughter when you can’t hold onto her yourself. And they promise to take the pain and sadness away bit by bit, exchanging beauty for ashes...and that is ultimately how pain ends.

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) is available 24/7 across the United States.