Navigating my teen’s mental health crisis as a single parent

Now that Alex was home from hospital, we would have to work hard so that they could heal and think of the future.

Title: single parenting through crisis
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

The day after Alex came home from hospital, they found a crow on the ground.

It was a warm mid-June day in Montana. The school year was finally over – 10th grade for Alex, and sixth for Talia.

It was in early March of 2019 when Alex was admitted to residential treatment for suicidal ideation and self-harm. Although it had been a relatively mild winter for Montana, snow covered the ground. Every weekend trek we had made from Missoula to the state capital Helena to see Alex, we had worn our bulky coats.

Some weekends, Alex was allowed to check out for a few hours. We would get pizza or wander up and down Helena’s small downtown strip, or explore the ceramic statues and broken teacups strewn about the grounds at the Archie Bray studios. These were the things we did on the weekends when the nurses said Alex was stable enough for short outings. Many weekends, though, the nurses put a red wristband on Alex. This meant outings were forbidden.

I had wanted to visit every day of the week, but as a single parent, I could only get there every weekend. This weighed on me heavily. I wanted, more than anything, for Alex to know I was there and that I would do anything to help them recover and heal. I also wanted to feel less alone. I wanted someone to tell me it was all going to be OK.

Now that Alex was home, they marvelled at the sun, the birds singing, the green grass. They talked about how disorienting it was to have been inside so long that they had missed the changing of the seasons.

They talked Talia into a walk to the park, but in just 15 minutes they returned.

“Mama!” Alex said, breathless and weepy. “There’s a hurt crow on the sidewalk. We think it’s a baby.”

Alex has always loved animals fiercely. At age five, they became vegetarian, and it’s a choice they’ve stuck to. So an injured animal was always a grave concern.

[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

I put my shoes on and followed my kids across the street. The crow was on the pavement against the curb. It lay on its back, blinking up at us. We stared back. Alex and Talia were in tears. “Mama, can’t we help it?!”

The kids wanted to put it in a box and feed it water and worms. Alex reached towards the crow with their scarred arms, showing me how gently they would be able to cradle it, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to injure it further by moving it. I messaged my friend Lauren who knew a lot about birds. She said there might not be much we could do and sent a link from the local Audubon society with instructions to consider: “If you have found an orphaned bird, the first step is to determine if it is really orphaned. … Fledglings often have weak flight muscles and may be fed for a few days by their parents outside of the nest.”

Adult crows were circling the fledgling and dive-bombed Alex’s head every time the kids approached. “They’re sad,” Alex said, their face a mirror of what they imagined the adult crows must be feeling. Then they ducked again, as the crows plummeted towards them.

I did not say that sometimes what feels like an attack can be a desperate attempt at protection. I hoped that the presence of the adult crows was a good sign. Perhaps the adult crows knew whether or not the fledgling was OK. Maybe they were better at knowing the sorts of things humans miss.

[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

I had missed the signs of how severe Alex’s depression was for months before they were hospitalised. I knew they were struggling at school, but I didn’t know about the cutting and suicidal ideation. I had been unsure of how to help or what to say. I wished desperately for a co-parent to talk to, someone with whom I could discover solutions. I also felt deep shame. How could I have missed the signs?

And now that they were home, I was terrified of caring for them on my own. I hadn’t slept much the night they came home and didn’t know if or when I would be able to sleep deeply again. Was Alex OK now? What if I missed important signs again? I was terrified of making some kind of fatal mistake. I wished I had a whole flock of adults around me to help me keep watch.

When I had messaged my ex-husband and his wife while Alex had been in residential treatment, asking them to reach out to Alex, they had responded coolly, telling me I should empower Alex rather than asking for support. I had long ago given up on any hope of true co-parenting, but this response was crushing. Alex deserved more than that. Alex deserved the full love and support of both of their parents.

The kids were dubious about leaving the crow on the ground. They wanted to take it to an animal rescue shelter. I shared Lauren’s advice; most places only took in raptors like eagles and hawks. Crows were often considered too common to care for.

Alex and Talia monitored the crow all day. By evening, the fledgling had flopped all the way across the street and was laying on the pavement, just two doors up from our house. I took its movement as a sign that it would be OK. The adult crows, congregated in the trees above the fledgling, would protect it from predators.

[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

The next morning, as soon as Talia woke she raced out to see the crow.

She returned, sobbing. “Mama,” she said. “The baby crow died!”

I tried to console her, to tell her that even if we had put it in a box we probably couldn’t have saved it. As soon as Alex heard the news, the kids rushed out together. Full-sized crows were still perched in the branches above the fledgling. They swooped at the kids over and over, cawing loudly.

I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. Was I heartless? Too cautious? I considered how my kids would have felt if they had placed the fledgling in a box and still found it dead the next morning. Would they have blamed themselves? It had been hard for me to invest energy into saving the fledgling. Trying to save my own child felt like a Sisyphean task.

I was so glad Alex was home. But, I knew our journey wasn’t over. I had secured a place for Alex at a new school where they would have smaller classes and more support and had found Alex a new counsellor. I also scheduled a trip for us to go camping and to look at a college I thought Alex might be interested in. I knew that while Alex was now stable enough to be home, we would have to work hard to maintain that stability so that Alex could heal and begin to imagine different possibilities for their future.

In June of 2019, we were still nine months away from the pandemic, when suicidal ideation in teens would surge and so many more parents would go through what I experienced. No parent should have to witness a child so miserable that they can see no way forward. Single parents, in particular, need support in navigating this trauma. As Alex’s only caregiver, the support I did or didn’t receive showed up in how much I could or couldn’t give them. Somehow, I got through on adrenaline, fear, determination and love. But I needed so much more.

“We’re going to give it a proper burial,” Alex announced. It was a beautiful Sunday. Father’s Day. Alex’s dad had not visited them during their three and a half months in residential treatment. I suspected this choice had more to do with his contempt for me than anything else, but it was a choice I was hard-pressed to explain to Alex or to myself. Alex was not interested in Father’s Day. It was crow burial day.

[Richard Smith Al Jazeera]

I retrieved gardening gloves and a box from the garage and set a shovel out in the backyard. Alex gently scooped the fledgling into the box and the kids carried it together. Their faces were mournful and tear stained.

The kids chose a spot shaded by shrubs in the corner of the yard. They took turns digging as I watched from a few feet away. When the hole was big enough, Alex lowered in the crow’s stiff body. Both kids gently covered it with dirt. It needed a headstone, the kids decided. They found the perfect flat rock. Talia ran inside for a black Sharpie. Alex bent over the gravestone and wrote in careful letters: “In memory of the fledgling crow in which we couldn’t save. REST IN PEACE Little One.”

The scars on Alex’s forearms were raised and pink. They weren’t sure they wanted to use the Vitamin E cream they had been given upon discharge. Alex told me they wanted to preserve their scars as a reminder of what they went through. I’d winced internally at their words, and now at the sight of the inch-long lines stippled across both arms. Although I knew Alex wanted me to see the survival, it was hard to see past the pain and wonder if there was more I could have done.

The kids placed two marigolds – one orange and one crimson – on the headstone and ringed the stone with bright yellow dandelion heads. Then they asked me to join them in silence while they honoured the crow’s life. The adult crows had moved to trees in our backyard and added piercing caws to the otherwise quiet morning. I had received lots of support while Alex was in hospital but even so, I envied the crows’ proximity to each other. They moved as a group and had looked out for the fledgling together. Now, they seemed to be mourning together. I longed for that kind of community.

I watched my kids’ faces as they sat on the dirt next to the fledgling’s grave. I didn’t know if the crow had been sick or if it had simply failed to launch, succumbing to gravity and fatal injuries instead of taking to the sky. I desperately hoped that I could help my own kids soar. So far it seemed to be touch and go. And clearly, I was on my own. There was no co-parenting, no support, no checking in.

When Alex and Talia rose, I hugged them both, feeling their bony limbs press into me. “I’m so sorry,” I said. I fought back tears, thinking about the fledgling, stiff on the concrete, flies circling around its eyes. The raucous mourning of the adult crows, overhead. It was unbearable to imagine the grief of losing a child.

I wondered if my kids’ tears that day encompassed the hardship we’d all gone through in recent months. I wondered if they felt, somewhere deep down, the grief that comes with realising you have stepped off the branch before you have tested your own strength.

Note from the author: In my experience, the only way to de-stigmatise suicide and suicidal ideation is to talk about it openly with friends, family members and/or mental health professionals. Hotlines can be an important tool, but they should not be the only tool. I was afraid that asking my child about suicide would manifest it, but it actually made them feel a little less alone. Check in with your loved ones about how they are feeling and be sure to check in with your own feelings regularly, too. If you see someone struggling, ask them if they are feeling suicidal or if they have a plan for suicide. Often, asking people if they have a plan for suicide is a way to understand how serious their suicidal ideation is and whether or not they may need more support or resources – like hospitalisation. As a friend says, “We’ll never make it out of the darkness alone. We need each other.” 

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organisations may be able to help.

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

Also, in the UK and Irish Republic, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email

For those bereaved by suicide in the UK, contact Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.

Other international suicide helplines can be found at

Source: Al Jazeera