At lunch yesterday, one of my coworkers was sharing her grief over a friend’s teenage son, who was being treated for depression and died by suicide over the weekend. His parents, recognizing a mental health crisis, took him to the emergency room where a resident evaluated him, found him calm and harmless, and released him. The boy killed himself within 48 hours of the release.

Another colleague – ordinarily a kind, sensitive and well-informed soul – let loose a stream of tone-deaf remarks that took my breath away.

Oh, they should have taken him to Hospital X instead.

Didn’t the therapist give the family a plan so they’d know what to do in case this happened?

I guess if you don’t understand the system or know how to advocate for yourself…

I had to excuse myself. And it wasn’t even my friend.

I was saddened that with all the recent awareness around mental health, all the progress, a well-meaning and educated person would say things like this. I’m sure she’d never dream of suggesting to a family whose son died of a sudden cardiac arrest that his death could have been prevented if they had taken him to a different hospital. Or had a foolproof, ‘What To Do In Case of Unexpected Heart Attack’ plan stuck to their fridge. Or known exactly the right words to say so that The System would not let their child die.

We don’t expect the parents of a child in cardiac distress to be able to diagnose him on the spot, pull out a scalpel and perform open-heart surgery in the living room. But we expect the parents of a child in mental distress to be able to do the psychiatric equivalent.

These parents did what they should have done, all they could have done – they got him to the professionals when they saw he was in trouble. Given the current state of mental healthcare, I can only imagine the effort and insight required to even get him that far. There is no ‘system’ for people trying to get help for a loved one with a mental illness, no solid support. Instead there is a tightrope over the abyss – and the winds are high.

The professionals could not save their boy either. Whether something was missed by those professionals can change nothing now, and is for nobody but the parents to decide and act on.

One of my favorite authors, Michael Neill, candidly talks about his experience with clinical depression as a teen. He describes a brush with suicide in college as an overpowering feeling that he was being sucked out his dorm room window by an enormous vacuum. No ‘attempt,’ no note; all he would have had to do…is let go.

It is doubly heartbreaking that this young man lost his grip, just as so many people were reaching for him.


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