Sunday, September 6th marks the beginning of Suicide Prevention Week. This week serves as a reminder to check-in on those around you, and yourself, and to continue to break down the stigmas surrounding mental health. At PA Parent and Family Alliance, we are passionate about breaking down that stigma and being a part of suicide prevention. This week we sat down with our own Christina Paternoster, Project Director of the PA Parent and Family Alliance and mother of 3, to hear her story about how suicide has impacted her family and how she actively works to spread awareness about the topic.
"My youngest brother made his first attempt at suicide at 12. He left home via ambulance having broken several of his back teeth. There was no way to think this wasn’t a serious attempt to take his life yet the local psychiatric hospital told my mom they wouldn’t keep him for treatment if he didn’t agree. His troubles continued and I watched my mom try over and over to get him good help to no avail," said Paternoster." It sticks with me that when I called off work the day after to go be with my family I asked my boss to not tell anyone what had happened because I was embarrassed. What an awful feeling for a parent/caregiver to have to carry in addition to the worry and sadness they’re experiencing."
When Paternoster thinks back on the day her brother died by suicide it is a day that will stay with her forever. "I’m lucky to be blessed with a terrible memory so I don’t remember the date but I do remember getting a call from my other brother one Saturday afternoon telling me what happened. He was going to call my mom next to tell her (since they had both been living in another state) but I couldn’t let her hear that way so I made the 2-hour drive home to tell my mom. Having to break that news to my mother stays with me to this day and impacted the way I reacted when one of my own children began to struggle with their mental health."
This experience obviously shaped Paternoster into the person, mother, and mental health advocate she is today. When her child was 12 she began to notice they were cutting and discussing ending their life. "Because of my family’s history, looking back I can see that I lived and may still to some extent continue to live, in constant fear. Just accessing help for my child was a constant battle. It was hard in our rural area to find good therapists and every time you tried a therapist and it didn’t work out you’d hear mumblings from friends, family members, or system administrators that you were “shopping for a diagnosis,” as if some mental health diagnosis’ are more glamorous or less stigmatizing than others. Then there was the guilt of medicating my child. Back in the day, I’d hear things insinuating that “drugging” my child made them easier to parent or keep teachers happy and that giving them “drugs” would turn them into addicts later in life, this is 100% absolutely NOT true. When I finally agreed to try medication my child’s mood change was quick and decisive, within a week when given a cutout to color with their emotions they went from 95% black = angry/sad to a rainbow of colors with just a slice of sad. Then, in perhaps typical mom fashion, I was mad at myself for waiting so long to provide that relief for them."
"When I talk about 'living in fear thing' about my child ending their life that’s really anticipatory grief, of course, I had no idea that that’s how I was living. It would have been really helpful if I had gone to therapy myself but where I lived and all the time I had to take off work for other parenting reasons certainly didn’t leave any “extra” time or money to take care of myself. Looking back I should have prioritized my own mental health. Hopefully with the option of telehealth more parents/caregivers will be able to make the time since tele-visits are perhaps easier to squeeze into a busy day," said Paternoster.
Paternoster is happy to see that while stigma still surrounds mental health, it is much better than it was when her mother was raising her and her siblings. "I know my mom did the best she could trying to find help for my brother. I think times have changed and are changing so it was a little easier to find help for my son and hopefully it's a little easier to find help today. More celebrities are talking about mental health and discussing how they go to therapy which is good and will trickle down so our children understand it’s normal to go talk with a therapist about how they’re feeling. I’m happy that I prioritized taking my child for therapy. I learned as much as I could and continue to learn as they grow and change. I think starting them in therapy when they were young, maybe 2nd grade, was helpful because as they get older it’s harder to drag them in and force them to talk. When they’re younger it’s just what you do and where you go. Plus they had that learning and understanding to fall back on when things got difficult for them."
"Still after years of therapy, my child ended up having two admissions to psychiatric hospitals for threats to take their life. I’ll never forget the Christmas I spent waiting for visiting hours."
"A few tips I share with my friends – Find your people! There may be some people in your circle who just don’t understand mental health issues, maybe family or friends, find people who do get it, and stick with them. You can still hang out with those who don’t get it but limit what you share or talk about with them if you know you’re going to walk away feeling bad about yourself and your decisions. Your people may be in an online group, they could be an FSP, a group of parents you meet for coffee or a therapist but find people with whom you can freely share your questions, concerns, and feelings. Your people should support you, maybe gently push back when you’re not thinking fully about something, and carefully challenge you to open up your thinking but always support you and your decisions," said Paternoster. "They should also be there for you non-judgmentally when your best attempt doesn’t work out because there are no guarantees anything will absolutely work.
Educate yourself! Attend appointments with a list of questions, do your own research so you know what to ask, and keep asking until you understand. It’s important to find credible sources for your information, don’t take medical advice from an influencer or a social media post, ask your trusted doctor/therapist. I have a list of sites where I check out new information and check several places before I try something new. And finally, ask for help. I’m terrible at this and there have been quite a few times when I’ve asked and been let down but ask again, ask someone different."
Now that Paternoster is the Project Director or PA Parent and Family Alliance she is able to use her lived experiences to help other parents and families across the state. "I’m very grateful that I have been able to find a way to share all the hard lessons I’ve learned about my child’s mental health challenges and educational needs. Now the parents I meet can benefit in some way from the challenges I faced so they don’t have to jump the same hurdles and can perhaps cut through some red tape by hearing from someone else."
"I think about my brother often. I remember that he always told me he loved me, at the end of every phone call or whenever he left my house he’d yell, “love you!” as he walked out the door. I always told my kiddos I loved them at bedtime or as they left for school but because of my brother, I tell them every time we hang up or whenever they walk out the door even if that's 10x's a day and as I tell them, I think of him. Even though he wasn’t here for very long he’s still here in every “I love you.”'
If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts the national suicide hotline is:
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