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Son Witnessed Attempted Suicide
Q: My 17-year-old son witnessed the attempted suicide of a student at school. He handled himself extremely well during the event (getting medical help for the victim, working with the police, etc.), but since the incident he complains of sleeplessness, loss of appetite, listlessness, and depression. He cannot concentrate, has flashbacks, and only wants to be alone.
My wife and I are trying to provide as much support as we can. What should we tell him? He doesn't want counseling. Should we force him to go? Should we remove him from school, or make him return? This is all very confusing.
A: Your son has been traumatized and can't distance himself emotionally from all the thoughts and feelings that have seized him since he witnessed this attempted suicide. Let's not forget he did more than hear about this suicide attempt -- he was a part of this horrific event and not merely a bystander.
All of the behaviors he is experiencing are normal: Sadness, anxiety, and depression. He needs help figuring out how to get out of this black hole. Removing him from school on any kind of extended basis would not be a healthy response. He needs professional counseling and he needs it preferably from a therapist who sees many kids his age and who has dealt with teen suicide before.
If your son was not the only one who witnessed this attempted suicide, there may be great benefit in treating other kids who witnessed it in a group counseling setting, as well as having your son receive individual therapy. Although he says that he doesn't want counseling, as his parents, you must insist that he receive it. He is exhibiting too many post-traumatic responses for you to just leave him alone until he "snaps out of it."
Research as many reliable medical and psychological resources available to you to find therapists who are a good match for your son. Let him interview a few of them and then select the person he feels most comfortable with. Expect continued resistance on his part about seeing a therapist, but tell him that you cannot stand by and see him suffer like this and that it is not a sign of weakness or "craziness" to have these reactions. Offer to attend the first session with him, at least for the first part of the session.
Contact some of the other parents whose kids also may have witnessed the suicide attempt and see if they are experiencing similar behavior with their kids. This is a situation that is not going to get better on its own. Get your kids the help they need now.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.