Terri Veliz was 15 years old and despondent. She’d run into the bathroom of her Phoenix home, where her family had moved from Arvada, to escape her mom and stepdad’s anger over borrowing their car without permission. She opened the medicine cabinet, grabbed some bottles, and poured all the pills onto the counter. Her mom banged open the door and continued the rant she had begun outside. Then she turned and walked away. She must have seen these, Terri thought. She swallowed every pill, certain that her life didn’t matter to her family. An ambulance ride and extended stay at the hospital later, Terri survived.

That was 1975. Today, five years sober after a 33-year battle with substance-abuse disorder, Terri is healthy, and she uses her personal experience to help others as a peer support specialist at Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, the new 24/7 statewide crisis hotline. It’s hard to wonder, though, what would have been different if her mom hadn’t looked the other way all those years ago. What if she’d had the words to talk to her daughter before Terri picked up those pills?

It’s more important than ever for parents and guardians to talk to their children about mental wellness. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 10 to 44 in Colorado, and approximately 15 percent of local high-schoolers seriously considered suicide during the past school year. For advice on how to start the conversation, we turned to Marjorie Laird, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Second Wind Fund (the Denver-based nonprofit provides mental health treatment to at-risk youth who have financial or social barriers to accessing care).

Educate Yourself

“The worst thing a parent can do is discount [the number of youth suicides in Colorado], or say, ‘That’ll never happen to my kids,’” Laird says. “I encourage parents and grandparents to go to websites and read up on childhood or teen depression or suicide, so that they already have a bit of a knowledge and understanding that this stuff does happen.” A couple links to get you started: National Institute of Mental Health on teen depression and a parent’s guide to teen depression.

Set The Stage

“When we have children, one of the most significant things we can do is to begin—age-appropriately, of course—talking about anything that needs to be talked about,” Laird says. “Build a communication pattern with them, so that when difficult or awkward things come up, you’ve learned to talk about them.” Most parents intuitively know this, Laird says, but when things are going well, they often overlook the opportunity to foster this sense of trust and openness.

Find Your Place

In building your foundation, Laird encourages parents to focus on how their child likes to communicate—and where. Perhaps your daughter is most talkative over an ice cream or during the drive home from school. Recognizing these patterns is helpful when you or they want to bring up tough conversations.

Watch Your Body Language

“This is a hard one: Be calm. Youngsters at any age, even teens, they don’t want to upset Mom and Dad,” Laird says. “They read us very well. Sometimes that’s just being quiet and not at least verbalizing upset. Or: ‘I hear you. I’m glad you’re coming and talking to me. You’re obviously hurting. I’m glad you’re willing to tell me. I hurt too, sometimes.’” Of course, this isn’t easy—especially when a parent hears that his or her child is in pain. But, as Laird notes, judging, lecturing, or walking away shutters the opportunity to take positive steps forward. “We want to keep the door open until we can clarify what is needed,” she says. “When we begin to identify what is needed then we can make some decisions on what to do.”

Accept and Encourage

“Feelings are often uncomfortable for us at any age. Of course, a negative feeling that our kids are giving us is really uncomfortable for us,” Laird says. “What do we want to do? We want to discount it and say it isn’t there or run from it or encourage them to walk away from it.” Instead, parents need to accept what their child is telling them, and respond that there is hope and that you’ll be with them throughout the process of seeking help. “That’s a lot for a parent to do,” Laird concedes.

Next Steps

Your game plan will depend on the age of the child and the safety of the situation. If your son has shown significant warning signs or is in the throes of an attempt, get him help immediately. If it’s not an acute crisis, but he tells you he’s really sad or he doesn’t care if he lives, beyond continuing the conversation, you want to make sure the environment is safe (guns are locked securely, pills aren’t accessible). Connecting the child with a therapist may be the right decision for one kid. For another, it might just be watching them over a period of time to see if their mood changes. “The more you know your child, the better you are at asking questions [and recognizing risk],” Laird says. “To be there and watching them without them feeling like you’re policing them is difficult. I believe in at least letting them know that you’ve heard them and that you want to help them in any way: ‘That’s probably going to involve us talking again, or it may be good in the future to go and talk to somebody else. I’ll go with you, don’t worry.’” Monitor your child and make whatever decision you feel is in their best interest—ideally with their input. And feel free to reach out to a trusted friend or family member or even a therapist for advice.

(Read more about Colorado’s suicide prevention efforts in “The Canyon of Why”)

To refer a child to Second Wind Fund: contact your school counselor, psychologist, or social worker; if he or she is not in school, you can reach out directly to Second Wind Fund.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 1-844-493-TALK(8255), or visit coloradocrisisservices.org.

Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.