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How I used Robin Williams' death to talk to my teen about depression

Aimee Fortney is “Not the Perfect Cook.” Retiring at age 31 as a bilingual political consultant, Aimee is now a cookbook author, blogger, recipe developer and inspirational food lover, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband a...

Completely heartbroken by the news of Robin Williams and his death, I sat down with my 14-year-old daughter to talk about what happened.

So many various works of Williams' art swirled through my mind when I heard the news. Some of my personal favorites were The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, Patch Adams, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come and Aladdin. As my daughter and I discussed the movies she had seen with Robin Williams, my voice quivered at the Aladdin reference.

“He was the Genie.”

Yes, "Remember how we used to sing 'Friend Like Me' for hours after watching Aladdin?"

My daughter’s face said it all. He was so talented. So brilliant. So incredibly funny. Interviews I had seen and read with Williams featured, often discussed how quick-witted he was, and people marveled at his ability to whip a comeback in an instant. My daughter was processing all of that and asked, innocently, "Why would someone so talented and funny commit suicide?"

A question for which I do not have an answer; but something we must not sweep under the rug. Instead of asking, "why," we can ask, "what can we do to help?"

We talked about how depression is an illness, and not something you can see, necessarily, with the naked eye. We want our teens to be thoughtful, compassionate friends in a world that is often so self absorbed. My daughter and I talked about ways we can help friends, family members and loved ones who suffer from depression. I am fortunate that my daughter is so attuned to her friends' feelings and emotions, and we used the news about Robin Williams to discuss what else can we do in our own little world.

For many who are battling depression (and for them, it is a daily battle), we need to offer our support. For teenagers, suggest that your teen talk to their friend or loved one about seeking medical help, first and foremost. A school guidance counselor would be a wonderful resource in helping your teen's friend seek help. In addition to that, urge your teen to just listen. Listen with your eyes, listen with your heart. Try not to be too busy when a friend is in need. If you recognize that your friends are becoming distant and more withdrawn, teach your teen not to accept, "I'm fine."

Three signs my daughter and I discussed that both she and I might look for, when dealing with depressed friends:

1. Outward, physical signs

Sometimes, the teen who is battling depression might show outward, physical signs, such as cutting. If that particular teen is cutting, one sign might be that they wear long sleeves during the summer months, to hide their scars. Your teen might notice excess bracelets, in addition to long sleeves, but if there are visible signs, urge your teen to speak privately with their friend. Take extra caution not to embarrass the friend in a public setting, but let them know that you notice what is going on, and you want to talk to them about it.

2. Change in personality

Other teens might offer no visible, physical marks, but the signs are very much still there. Being over-the-top funny when you know their home or personal life has made them feel particularly down; or acting like nothing at all is wrong. (Depression does not go away overnight.)

3. Subtle signs

Notice the subtle signs, like noticing when their friends are becoming more and more withdrawn. Losing interest in not only their schoolwork, but music, sports, hanging out... hobbies they used to enjoy, now they want nothing to do with them.

Urge your teen that no matter what, the best thing they can do for their loved one who is battling depression or has suicidal thoughts, is suggest they seek medical attention, immediately. As I told my daughter, if you have been sworn to secrecy, but their friend or loved one's life is in jeopardy or they are a danger to themselves, this is a secret they need to share, immediately. Teach your teen to tell you, another parent or trusted adult if they fear their friend could harm themselves.

Urge your teen to be a friend. Don't judge; just listen. To let their friend know that while they might not have the answers, they are thinking about and praying for their friend.

Urge your teen to do honor in Robin Williams' name and let their friend know, "You ain't never had a friend like me."That will be a gift your teen's friend desperately needs, but might not ask for, during dark times. I showed my daughter several websites, to emphasize that there is help for depression.

As parents, we too can offer help to a teenager who might be battling depression. Start by talking about it at home, and offer your home as a safe place for your teen and their friends.

If you suspect someone might be considering suicide, or you have struggled with those thoughts yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Photo credit:Ryan Pierse/Staff/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

More on Robin Williams

Robin Williams dies at the age of 63
Why Robin Williams was a significant part of my life
A Mrs. Doubtfire sequel is in the works, minus Mara Wilson

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