Another Gone Too Soon

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I posted about a family friend who took her life. Just last week, a teenage girl who went to high school with my daughter took her own life. Evidently she hung herself at her home the day of prom.

It’s hard to imagine how much despair she felt in her life that she resorted to such an act. I am sure it seemed like such an easy way out.  An option that would enable her to escape the pain she felt in what was likely a difficult life marked by divorce and family issues.

Since I’m friends with my kids on Facebook (though sometimes they refer to me as a “creeper”), I saw that they “liked” a page someone set up in the young girl’s memory. Here’s what it said (I will change the name of the deceased to respect her identity):

“Learn from this. Katie was loved. She was adored. In just a short matter of time she couldn’t take it anymore. She isn’t the only person who felt this way. If you see changes in one of your friends; TALK TO THEM. Let them vent to you. If they want to take their life TELL SOMEBODY. Look out for each other. She was beautiful, funny, creative and an amazing person. You never know what happens behind closed doors.”

Whomever wrote the post of Facebook was right. You have the keep the communication with your teens open. And you have to be observant as you monitor their behavior.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests parents be mindful for the following signs from teens who might be contemplating suicide:

  • change in eating and sleeping habits
  • withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
  • violent actions, rebellious behavior, or running away
  • drug and alcohol use
  • unusual neglect of personal appearance
  • marked personality change
  • persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of schoolwork
  • frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
  • loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • not tolerating praise or rewards

A teenager who is planning to commit suicide may also:

  • complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside
  • give verbal hints with statements such as: I won’t be a problem for you much longer, Nothing matters, It’s no use, and I won’t see you again
  • put his or her affairs in order, for example, give away favorite possessions, clean his or her room, throw away important belongings, etc.
  • become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
  • have signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)

The Ohio State University Medical Center offers some really helpful information about teen suicide on their Web site.

Give your kids a hug tonight, and every night, and reassure them that nothing is worth ending your life over.

The Three Rs

My fifteen-year-old daughter has a boyfriend. The mere notion of this strikes panic in the hearts of many a parent, including me. Because you know what that means. You only hope that you’ve instilled the right morals and values in your child so that they right decisions when faced with options.

I was talking to come female co-workers about their daughters, and we’ve had deep conversations about teenagers, male and female, and just how difficult it can be to raise them.  It’s a good thing hair color and wine were invented – with a 13-year old daughter, too, I’m in for a long ride of grey hair and angst.

Talking to current moms and those whose daughters have gone on to college and successful careers, I thought I would share their perspectives along with some of mine (and my husband, who has the honor of being in only man in a home with three women and a neutered dog):

1. Be a mom first, and always first. Being a friend is a nice secondary bonus. It seems like some moms want to live vicariously through their teenage daughters, talking and dressing like they’re 16 again. The fact is that it’s harder to be a mother and easier to be a friend. You won’t always be popular, and your kid will likely tell you you’re annoying, or she hates you, but in the end, isn’t parenting all about giving kids the life skills that they need to eventually move on and be productive, self-sufficient individuals?  Forget the Hollister sweatshirts and the Pink sweatpants. If you’re 39, it’s ok to dress like you’re 29, but 19? Really?

2. Never underestimate the power of the three Rs – respect, responsibility and reputation. Kids have to earn respect from their friends, parents, teachers and others. And earning it coming from giving it. I think all too often, kids are disrespectful and often downright rude. Respect starts at home and instilling this value is so important.

When I talk about responsibility, I think I mean personal accountability. Taking ownership for one’s actions. Helping around the house and ensuring that school, family and extra-curricular responsibilities are handled with parents helping kids understand how to prioritize responsibilities. Additionally, it seems like many parents don’t want their kids to be punished because they lack responsible behavior. “Oh no, not my kid, he’d never do anything like that.” Right. If my child does something that warrants negative consequences, then they’ll need to face the outcome and learn from it. That’s how we learn and become better people.

Reputation. Once you lose it, it’s hard to regain. Listening to teen conversations in the car and at home, even on Facebook, you can hear how quickly one’s reputation can be trashed. Parents need to help kids understand that their behaviors and action have consequences – both positive and negative. Choices in friends (of both sexes) and clothes. Your behavior in public and behind closed doors. What you say to others and what you post on Facebook. All can impact your reputation – forever. Parents need to help kids understand the value of a good reputation and the often disastrous impact of a negative one.

3. Be empathetic. You remember how difficult it was to be a teenager. Few stages are as difficult in life because you’re still a kid but yearn to be treated like an adult. But teenage brains aren’t fully developed and that’s why teens are often more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. Sometimes the best time to talk is when you’re in a one-on-one, non-threatening situation, like driving somewhere together or shopping. Think about the issues facing teens – high pressure tests at school, the movement from face-to-face communications to social networking and texting, increasing rates of obesity, teen pregnancy and STDs, juggling multiple commitments at home, work, school and elsewhere. Taking time to listen without judging is so important.

4. Reinforce the positive. We all want to be recognized for the good things we do. As working parents, both my husband and I know how hard it can be to remember these little details. Ice cream sundaes to celebrate a good test score. A compliment on a new outfit before school. A note in a lunch box. Little things like this mean a lot.

5. Make time for fun. In today’s society, it seems like we’re wrapped up in the rat race every day. Little time to stop, breathe and truly relax. That’s why vacations can be so good for families. And they don’t have to be extravagant, expensive or long. Sometimes a chance of venue is just the remedy for a stressed out family. Several ago when my family was on a cruise, we opted to do a couple really fun excursions that included ATV riding in the desert and ziplining in the jungle. We were all out of our comfort zone with these activities, but it was fabulous to experience something new and different together. And we took away some great memories that will last a lifetime.

So take these ideas from me and other moms for what they’re worth to you. And enjoy the kids while they’re home…it won’t be long before they’re gone and you wish they were driving you crazy again.

Creating a Generation of Health Advocates

Two weeks ago, I took my two daughters and their two friends to the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Columbus, the city I call home. There are few sights as moving as masses of people – young, old, black, white, male, female and more – walking and running for one single cause. It’ a pretty moving experience, so if you haven’t participated, you should at walk in at least one.

Progress in Prevention

Coming off of the heels of such an amazing event, it’s awesome to hear that progress is being made in preventing breast cancer. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute have a promising new breast cancer vaccine prototype. Tested in mice, it’s very encouraging according to the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Vincent Tuohy.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to prevent breast cancer with something as simple as a vaccine?  There are vaccinations for cervical and liver cancers, but these target viruses while the one being tested at the Cleveland Clinic targets cancer formation. If any human testing proves successful, the intent would be to vaccinate women 40 and over as well as younger women with a heightened risk of breast cancer. Sign me up.

Funding, Finding and Fighting

There are many people and institutions studying cancer prevention and they rely on funding from sources like the Komen Race for the Cure, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and many others. As my daughters have seen friends affected by the disease, they’ve chosen to take an active role in helping prevent it. My youngest sold candy bars and raised in excess of $330 for the Race. In a couple of weeks, they’ll be supporting the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and celebrating a friend’s dad who has remained cancer-free several years after a life-saving bone marrow transplant.

By educating our kids about health and wellness, we can help them to understand how to take care of themselves, and we can help create a generation of health advocates. I hope that my daughter’s interest in biology leads her to develop promising discoveries like the one at the Cleveland Clinic.

PS – if you haven’t had a mammogram recently, get one. Your newblets, and your kids, will thank you.

Every Day is Mother’s Day

One mom whose quotes I have always loved is Erma Bombeck. This Dayton, Ohio housewife grew up in near poverty, yet went on to have one of the longest running columns in newspaper history – this despite having breast cancer and a serious kidney disease.

Bombeck said, “One thing they never tell you about child raising is that for the rest of your life, at the drop of a hat, you are expected to know your child’s name and how old he or she is. “

Out of the Mouths of Babes
That’s so true. It’s amazing how much we need to know as mothers.  Today I thought about  some of the hilarious things my two daughters have asked about or said that made me laugh out loud. When you get questions like these, it’s pretty hard not to laugh:

 - “Mom, why doesn’t Winnie the Pooh wear pants?”
-  “Mom, is that the doctor’s office where you go to get your monogram?”
- “Why do boys have weiners and girls have virginias?”
-  “Are those omelet people?” asked my younger daughter when we visited Ohio’s Amish country.
- “Mom, what is a douchebag anyway?”

Ahh, the Joys of Motherhood

In celebration of Mother’s Day, and because I’m too tired to think of another topic to write about, I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes about motherhood:

“My kids always perceived the bathroom as a place where you wait it out until all the groceries are unloaded from the car.” – Erma Bombeck

“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” – Calvin Trillon

“Mothers of teenagers know why animals eat their young.” – Unknowndave barry,

“Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, has instilled within each of us a powerful biological instinct to reproduce; this is her way of assuring that the human race, come what may, will never have any disposable income.”  -Dave Barry

“Labor Day is a glorious holiday because your child will be going back to school the next day.  It would have been called Independence Day, but that name was already taken. ” -Bill Dodds

“A suburban mother’s role is to deliver children obstetrically once, and by car forever after.” – Peter deVries

“Always be nice to your children because they’re the ones who will choose your rest home.” – Phyllis Diller

“Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell, the name will carry.” – Bill Cosby

“Children seldom misquote you. They more often repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.” – Mae Maloo

And I think this is my favorite of all…

“No one ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed. I have known mothers who remake the bed after their children do it because there’s a wrinkle in the spread or the blanket is crooked. This is sick. – Erma Bombeck

Here’s to unmade beds and making every day Mother’s Day!

 
 

Partners In Life, Partners in Death

Back in October, I watched my wonderful friend, Jill, die from breast cancer (see Crucial Conversations). While watching the cancer slowly steal the life from her, it was comforting to know that Jill’s partner, Joan, was with her night and day until the very end. In the inpatient hospice facility, Jill and Joan’s friends, many of whom were also lesbians, laughed, cried and shared great stories about Jill and the impact her life had on them. For people like them and countless others in the LGBT community, yesterday’s ruling allowing hospital visitation rights for same sex partners was very welcome but long overdue.

I cannot image for a moment being denied the opportunity to be with a loved one in the hospital. A person’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to this, and for the life of me, I don’t understand how a hospital could deny this right to any individual. And as a parent, it is appalling to me that their children could be denied the chance to be with their parent at the end of life. How devastating.

Same-Sex Hospital Visitation

Last year, the New York Times ran a story, “Kept from A Dying Partner’s Bedside,” which chronicles a series of events that happened to Lisa Pond and her partner of 18 years, Janice Langbehn.

Lisa and Janice’s ordeal happened in 2007  when they traveled to Miami with their three children, then ages 9, 11 and 13, for a cruise. After boarding the ship, Lisa collapsed while taking pictures of the kids. Since the ship was still in port, they were able to get Lisa to Jackson Memorial Hospital.

According to the Times article, Janice said a hospital social worker informed her that she was in an “antigay city and state” and that she would need a health care proxy to get information. (side note: how did this social worker ever get hired with an attitude like that?).

Janice provided the proxy documents, but during her eight-hour stay in the trauma unit waiting room, she had two brief encounters with doctors, then finally was told that Lisa had no chance of recovering.

Janice had only a few minutes with Lisa when a priest administered last rites. It wasn’t until several hours later that the three exhausted children were finally able to visit their unconscious mother who was declared brain-dead the following morning.

Equal Access to Care and Compassion

It’s hard to believe that a hospital like Jackson Memorial, a Level One trauma center with staff and physicians accustomed to caring for critically ill and injured patients, would have reacted in such a way. Isn’t care and compassion a core value of all physicians and staff at every hospital? You’d hope so.

In this new ruling, hospitals that receive federal money through Medicaid and Medicare must comply. Once enacted, the new rules will  apply to everyone — each patient will be able to designate his or her visitor. The medical power of attorney standards are still governed by state law, but the President’s Memorandum (and, in fact, existing federal regulations) require hospitals to respect those powers of attorney. Unfortunately, in some cases, like that involving Lisa and Janice, hospitals have not respected those legal documents when presented by same-sex couples.

Every day we wake up not knowing if it will be our last. We owe it to one another to create a system of care that enables active participation and involvement from family members while supporting the role of patient care providers.

Thanks, Janice, for standing up for this most basic of human rights.

A Bundle of Contradictions, Hormones and Questions

I’m a parent of two teen girls. They’re great daughters, but I often wonder how I will keep my hair from turning gray between now and 2015 when the youngest graduates from high school. Both girls are absolutely obsessed with their cell phones and maintaining their extensive network of friends through texting, MySpace and Facebook. So when I read a new white paper this morning, “The Teenage Girl as Consumer and Communicator,” released by Euro RSCG Worldwide Public Relations, I wasn’t too surprised.

Online All the Time

The white paper confirmed something I’ve seen in my two girls – and in every teen girl I know – they go online to maintain their friendships. In fact, 71 percent are online with friends, not just surfing randomly. And their value-minded moms seem to be influencing them with 77 percent more likely to buy sale-priced items than one at full price. 

This is great to hear, considering how fickle teen girls seem to be with their tastes and preferences changing all the time. Both daughters want to redecorate their rooms, but I’m a little reluctant to start this process because they’re constantly changing their minds. One day they’re influenced by a friend’s room, another by something they saw on HGTV. In great article in MediaWeek, “Their So-Called Life,” author Marita Scarfi uncovers additional insights into this hard-to-engage demographic. Scarfi calls teen girls “… a bundle of contradictions, they’re still building their identities and moving among these different identities every day.”

I couldn’t agree more. My daughters play the role of sister, friend, student, daughter, performer, athlete and others, and how they behave changes depending on whey they are and with whom. One point Scarfi makes that’s a little disconcerting for me, though, is that it is widely believed that teen girls can filter information they find online, but this isn’t always the case—especially when it comes to information regarding mental, sexual and general health issues. Teens may end up on credible sites like Yahoo Answers or WebMD, but they may also be guilty of Googling health questions, leaving them susceptible to incorrect information.

Surfing for Health

In fact, according to a Pew Internet report on Social Media and Young Adults, about a third of online teens ages 12 to 17 use the internet to look for health, dieting or physical fitness information. It’s interesting to read in this same report that teens also use the internet to look for information on health topics that are hard to talk about, like drug use, sexual health or depression. A bit more than one in six (17%) internet-using teens look online for information about sensitive health topics.

As a communications professional, I see the value in working hard to find ways to connect with these girls so they make smart, safe and informed choices.But as a mom, I know the Internet alone doesn’t replace the role that one-on-one dialogue plays.  Sure, some topics are difficult to cover, but wouldn’t you rather your kid get correct information from you rather than incorrect information from someone else?

Straight Talk from Mom and Dad

I think none of us can underestimate the role the parents play.  Even though kids might work part-time jobs and/or receive an allowance, mom and dad are often key to providing kids with factual, credible information needed to make appropriate decisions that can impact them for the rest of their lives. There are several Web sites that are good resources for teens, or can help parents initiate a conversation with kids.

They include ConnectedYouth.org, a site that is funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. It includes a number of links to credible and informative sites from hospitals, government agencies and non-profits. It also points out some Web sites that pertain to boys or girls only, and others that focus on a specific issues such as mental health and eating disorders. HealthFinder.gov and KidsHealth.org are also good resources.

Just recently, a new suicide prevention campaign aimed at teenagers ages 13 to 17 was launched. It provides online resources and support through ReachOut.com, a site funded by the Inspire Foundation. I can’t help but wonder if a site like this would have been helpful to our family friend who took her life earlier this year.

Gone Too Soon

This past weekend was a devastating one. We learned that a beautiful young lady, Heather, a friend of our family, took her own life. Just a few weeks prior, we had dinner with Heather, who was just 22 years old. She looked great and acted completely normal, like she had not a care in the world.

Heather was a magna cum laude college graduate and had joined the National Guard. She had just returned from a trip to Israel with her guard unit.

A Zest for Life and Living

We really got to know Heather several years ago when she and a five teenagers joined us and two other families on a summer trip. There was a huge bedroom full of girls at the summer rental home, and they had a fabulous time together. It was particularly meaningful because all the older girls made my two feel right at home. Heather’s smile lit up a room – she had an amazing sense of humor and a compassionate spirit not typically seen in teenagers.

Last Saturday, we heard she’d been missing and many of us started to worry. Her family worked with the police to contact her cell provider to determine where her last call or text message had been sent. Based on that location, they started to search. It was a short time later that Heather’s dad, and her best friend, Katie, found her car at a local mall. Her body was in it, completely covered by blankets so she would not be seen by others.

Why?

It will be several weeks before toxicology reports come back, so no one knows for certain what she took to end her life. It’s irrelevant anyway, now, because she’s gone. Now we have a mix of wonderful memories of her contrasted with the never-ending question – why?

As a parent, this was difficult for me and my husband, particularly since we’d never been through this before. And, it was obvious my children were completely devastated and confused. “How could someone so smart, talented, compassionate and friendly so something like this? She has everything to live for,” they said.

I don’t think I’ve experienced anything quite as sad as Heather’s funeral. Hundreds of people paid respects to her family. The military pallbearers removed her flag-draped casket from the hearse, conducted a 21-gun salute and roll call, and gave a carefully folded American flag to her parents and also to her brother, who had served in the Air Force.

Something Not Talked About

Suicide is a serious public health problem that’s shrouded in secrecy and shame. Amazingly, suicide is the third leading cause of death for those Heather’s age. The incidence of suicide among young adults ages 20 to 24 is 12.5 per 100,000. I found a helpful site, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (www.save.org), which has a lot of great information, including a page about how to talk to children.

One point I found particularly interesting was that the majority of the people who take their lives (estimated at 90%) suffer with an underlying mental illness or substance abuse problem at the time of their death. They weren’t sick, but their brains were. Too often we think that a person is their brain, that’s where their personality or character resides. This is not true. The brain is an organ just like the liver, the kidneys, the gallbladder, etc. When it gets sick, the appearance of the problem is often in the form of a mental illness, as in the case of depressionbipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia. If the brain is sick too long, it can lead a person to take his or her life.

It Starts With Awareness

Of course, this isn’t always the case, as millions of people live with depression and never attempt or die by suicide, but with awareness, education, and treatment, people can be helped so that suicide does not become an option.

“Our society needs to take on suicide the way business has taken on industrial accidents. Zero tolerance,” says John V. Campo, MD, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry and medical director of behavioral health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

“Every time there’s a suicide, the local mental health community should be asking what we could have done to prevent it. And, we can prevent youth suicides if we build a comprehensive system to identify and care for kids at risk. Primary care is an important part of such a system,” he adds.

I hope we can do more to understand mental illness and substance abuse to help people obtain the help they need to cope with these diseases. Such pain is inflicted on families and friends when a life is gone too early. Please pray for Heather and her family so that they can find comfort in knowing she’s no longer in pain.

Resources

Some other helpful resources I’ve found include:

KidsHealth.org

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

SafeYouth.org

Mayo Clinic