It is often assumed that women–particularly young women–will reach out for help when concerned about their mental health. There is a tendency to think of women as having a certain savviness when it comes to understanding their emotions. Young women are commonly assumed to be even better equipped than previous generations to take care of their mental health.
Yet while the majority of people who die by suicide are men, we are seeing an increase in young women ending their lives. Suicide is most often connected to undertreated or untreated mental health concerns–and we are learning that both genders may be suffering in silence.
Young women continue to face mounting pressures in society that may challenge their ability to reach out for support. As a mother of a young daughter, I am aware of modern societal messages that seem to inform her of how she should be in the world: “Present yourself well, but expect attention for how you look,” “Assert yourself, but don’t be ‘bossy,’” “Don’t assume opportunities are for men only,” “Be bold,” and “You can be anything you want to be.” The list goes on.
For young women, these societal messages can come with a price–a growing feeling they cannot measure up to all that is expected of them. They may suffer from depression and anxiety in silence, confused by a world that seems to hold more opportunities for them, but also more expectations.
If you are concerned about a girl or young woman in your life, or even wondering how she might be feeling, I encourage you to have an open dialogue with her. Ask her directly how she has been feeling and, if you are concerned, whether or not she has ever had thoughts of suicide. Asking will not put the thought in her head, but rather, may start a dialogue that continues over time, and sends a message that you are a safe person to talk to about mental health.
Here are some tips to begin that conversation with your teenager or young woman:
- Find a time when you can be alone to talk (make the time).
- Say something like, “I’ve noticed you seem overwhelmed lately. How are you doing?”
- After listening–especially if you have picked up on feelings of hopelessness or feeling trapped –you can say something like, “Sometimes when people are overwhelmed, or feeling depressed or anxious, they may have thoughts about wanting to end their life. I am wondering–have you ever had those thoughts?”
- Don’t overreact to what you hear. While it is not uncommon for teens to have thoughts of suicide, it is important you listen without judgment. If she is sharing this with you, she is taking a risk and hoping to trust you with this deeper admission of distress. If she says she is not having those thoughts, keep listening and ask again if you have doubts.
- You can also raise this in the context of current events. “I know you might have heard about the recent death by suicide of Kate Spade. What do you think about that? Have you ever found yourself, or anyone you know, having thoughts or talking about suicide?”
- If she tells you she is having thoughts of suicide, reassure her that those thoughts are often connected to mental health, and that there is help for that. Reassure her you will get her the help she needs, and that you are there for her, always, but especially when she feels this level of despair.
- Help her find a way to let you know when she needs support. She may have certain words she will say that are more comfortable for her to let you know she is feeling particularly bad. Find out what those are.
- Let her know you are going to help her by connecting her to someone who is an expert in mental health–similar to how you would connect her to a doctor if she had the flu or any other health condition. Then call a mental health counselor to make an appointment (don’t wait).
- If you are concerned she might be suicidal, make sure her environment is safe by securing (or removing from your home) things that might be used for harm, such as medication or firearms.
- Check in with her regularly. Find out who else she might want to talk to if this conversation is difficult for her with you. Don’t be offended if she decides to talk to another adult about this–but make sure that person knows the goal is to keep her connected to support and get treatment if needed.
- Ask about her friends too. Is she worried about anyone? Empower her to check in with her friends about their health. You can find some great examples of how to do this at www.seizetheawkward.org Feel free to watch these videos with your teen to start the dialogue.
- Provide your teen with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Crisis Text Line: text TALK to 741741.A trained person will be available to talk or text with your teen (or with you) 24/7.
- Have conversations about mental health early and often–not only when you are concerned.
- Finally, model taking care of your own mental health. Pay attention to your own stress levels, engage in activities such as meditation, exercise, and socializing with supportive people. Share with her what healthy activities work for you, and ask if there are things she finds helpful herself. Get help when you need it too.
While we can’t protect young women from all the pressures they may face, we can help them learn how to pay attention to their mental health and seek help when needed.
Perhaps this is the biggest responsibility we have in equipping young women for the modern world: to let them know they are not alone, that they have our support, and that mental health is part of our overall health and requires our attention in the same way.
You can learn more about suicide at The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and how to have a conversation about mental health at www.seizetheawkward.org
Dr. Doreen Marshall, Vice President of Programs, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, [email protected]