Ask Ann Cannon: He told me about his suicidal thoughts but doesn’t want me to tell his mom

Dear Ann Cannon • I come from a large extended family with all the usual kinds of characters. Some are guarded about their privacy, others aren’t. One of the grandkids has a problem communicating with his mom.

He recently moved away and is doing just OK, while his siblings are doing really well in their chosen arenas. He thinks (of course, thanks to social media) that all his “friends” are happy, dating, getting laid, buying cars, going on vacations and making lots of money. He called me in a complete funk and made a comment about how the world might be better without him.

It really surprised me and then it scared me. He was very clear that I should NOT tell/share any of this with his mom. His mom will be furious if she finds out that she was not told, which seems like the wrong thing for her to be upset about. I am very concerned and actually think that the mom should be told, but am afraid of what could happen with her son. So, two questions, what can I say or do to help the son? And should I tell mom?

Deeply Concerned

Dear Concerned • Before I get started here, I want to remind everyone that I am not a therapist, so please put my responses in that context — especially when questions, like this one, raise serious mental health issues. Instead, I speak from my own life experience.

When I first read your question, my initial response was YOU HAVE TO TELL HIS MOM — probably because I’m a mother and would definitely want to know if this was going on with one of my own kids. But, actually, the paramount issue here involves the personal safety of this young man. Your focus should be on him, not on how his mother will react if she feels like she’s been left out of the loop.

Threats of self-harm should never be ignored. Because this relative obviously trusts you and feels more comfortable talking to you than to his own mother, I would be direct with him. Don’t be afraid to ask if he is, in fact, seriously thinking about harming himself. Press him even if it makes you uncomfortable to do so. Ask if he has a plan. Raising these questions will NOT increase his risk of committing suicide. Evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite. For more information about suicide prevention, you can visit the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Institute online at www.qprinstitute.com.

If you feel like your relative is in real danger, see if you can get him to commit to finding help. Follow up. Help him locate a good therapist. If he won’t commit, then tell him you WILL bring his mother into the conversation, even if he doesn’t want you to. His safety — and whatever it takes to ensure it — is your first concern.

If, on the other hand, you feel like he’s not seriously considering suicide — after all, it’s not unheard of for young people to overstate their intentions — think about keeping his confidence in the house for the moment. Stay in regular touch with him. Encourage him to take care of his physical and mental health. Remind him that everything he sees on social media is heavily curated and even suggest that he get off social media for the time being. Meanwhile, remind yourself that you can’t make this young man do anything he doesn’t want to do.

This is a serious matter, and I hope I’ve given you good advice. I’d be happy to hear what our readers have to say. Good luck!

If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255. The Utah Statewide Crisis Line number is 801-587-3000.

Ann Cannon is The Tribune’s advice columnist. Got a question for Ann? Email her at askann@sltrib.com or visit the Ask Ann Cannon page on Facebook.