How should we handle our concerns that our adolescent grandson may be thinking about ending his own life? Many teens are moody - we understand that - but he seems to have more "downs" than "ups," and we think he could be seriously depressed. While spending the weekend at our house, he actually told us that his life is "meaningless" and even dropped a few off-handed comments about death and dying. His parents seem to be completely oblivious and unresponsive to his feelings, so we're wondering if we should do something.
First, we want to commend you for being so sensitive to your grandson's emotions and needs. As you may know, teen suicide is a huge and growing problem: studies indicate that it's now the third leading cause of death among young people ages fifteen to twenty-four, just behind auto accidents and homicide. Your concerns are well placed, and you're wise to be looking for ways to help him
Look for an opportunity to bring these concerns up again with your grandson the next time you have a chance. See if you can get him to open up and explain the reasons for his dark perspective on life. Don't criticize, express anger, assign blame or share personal anxieties at this point. Instead, be a source of unconditional love, compassion and support. Press him gently with some direct questions like, "Where are these negative feelings coming from?" or "Have you ever felt so bad that you've actually thought about taking your own life?" As wise and loving grandparents, direct his attention to the eternal hope we have in Jesus Christ. At the end of your conversation, encourage him to go home and have a similar discussion with his parents.
If for some reason it's not safe or feasible for him to speak to his parents in this way – if they're absent, unresponsive, negligent or abusive – then take steps to put him in touch with some other responsible, caring adult – a teacher, pastor, counselor, coach, youth leader, neighbor, or friend – with whom he can talk at length about his depression and self-denigrating thoughts. If possible, get him to suggest an individual for whom he has strong feelings of affection or with whom he shares a special bond. It should be someone he believes he can trust. Ask him, "Who do you think you could talk to about these negative thoughts?" If he suggests a name, follow through by offering to set up an appointment with that person on his behalf. Meanwhile, practice being a good listener. Take his feelings seriously. Pray with him and for him.
We realize that you're in a very delicate position. As grandparents, you don't have the legal right to arrange professional treatment for your grandson. But that doesn't mean that you're without recourse. You can encourage him to open his heart to other individuals – for example, a school nurse or counselor – who may have the authority to initiate direct action. In the meantime, we hope you'll feel free to contact Focus on the Family's Counseling department. One of our caring Christian therapists would be happy to discuss this situation with you at greater length.
Suicide (resource list)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
New Hope Telephone Counseling Center – 1-714-NEW-HOPE (639-4673)