I'll Never Hide the Truth About My Suicide Attempt From My Kids
As a teen grappling with mental illness, Kimberly Zapata attempted suicide by overdosing. Now she's a mom of two young kids, and she makes the case for why her children need to know about it.
I don’t remember much about June 19, 2001. The day was warm. Very warm. Sweat pooled between my breasts, and my unshaven thighs stuck to the plastic-coated bus seat. When I arrived at school, it sounded like I was peeling my legs off a latex balloon.
Long, frizzy strands of hair flew out of my ponytail and into my face, but additional details are vague. The drugstore notebook I used to journal in had nothing written on that date; I didn't write anything the next day, either. Despite the fact that I was on a class trip, I have no pictures from that morning. But why would I? On June 19, I tried to commit suicide.
I wanted—and attempted—to die.
It wasn’t the first time. Not really. The symptoms of mental illness struck me early. I was an anxious child and a depressed teen, one who began carving her arms up at 15 and abusing her body at 16. During my sophomore year, I developed an eating disorder. But that warm almost-summer day was different. It was my first real attempt.
The good news is, I failed. The pills I took made me sick but they didn’t kill me, and after 36 hours of vomiting, sleeping, and replenishing fluids, I sat up, got up, and woke up at home—alive. And while a lot has changed since that day—I have been in and out of therapy and on and off meds for many years—I plan to talk to my children about suicide. I will tell my son and daughter about my thoughts, ideations, and attempts, and I will do so because they matter, because their lives and mental well-being matter.
Every day, 123 people die by suicide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth and young adults, and that number is on the rise. A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that suicide rates among young people are at their highest in nearly 20 years. Boys are particularly at risk; there was a 21% spike in suicides by young men ages 15-19.
But that’s not all: Children as young as eight have killed themselves. Yes, there are documented cases of elementary-age suicides.
And while many believe talking about the “s word” can (and will) lead to suicide, a 2005 study found no correlation between the conversation and the act. Asking someone if they are suicidal will not cause them to make an attempt on their life. In fact, according to HelpGuide—a mental health nonprofit and wellness website dedicated to empowering those living with mental illness(es), and their loved ones—the opposite is true.
“You don’t give a suicidal person morbid ideas by talking about suicide,” the organization's prevention guide reads. “Bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.” Instead, discussing suicide can save lives.
Of course, I know this conversation will not be easy, nor will it be tied up in a pretty little bow. My children will struggle to understand my mentality, and my words. After all, it is impossible to explain anguish, heartache, misery, and grief to my 6-year-old daughter—who gets upset when I turn the TV off or melts down when I say no dessert. There will be questions, lots of questions. And our conversation will be ongoing. While I intend to talk with my daughter soon, my son will not learn about suicide for many years—he's only six months old.
The tone of our dialogue will change as my littles age and mature. But since suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, they need to hear about it. They need to learn about it, and as their parent, I need to facilitate this discussion.
Children deserve the truth. Plus, silence can be deadly. If they experience these thoughts with no frame of reference, they may believe they are bad, crazy, and alone. So I will start small. I plan to introduce the subject when my children are in second or third grade, and I will begin with the basics. “Mommy was sick. She has been for many years, and her illness was life-threatening. But she got help. Mommy goes to a doctor every week to treat the symptoms of her disease.” And then I will let them guide the conversation. I will let them know I am willing to discuss the matter anytime, anywhere.
Will this be enough to save their life, or that of a friend? I don't know. Mental illness is an insidious disease—one which strikes without warning. But I hope that by discussing the subject, I can normalize these thoughts. I can make them aware that they are not alone. I hope that initiating the conversation now, when they are young, will help them feel supported when they are old.
I want them to know I will always hear them, help them, and listen. No subject is too scary. No topic is taboo. And I want them to know suicidal thoughts pass. There is light (and life) on the other side.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org, or text “START” to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.
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