Warning Signs

Recently, I saw an ad for a service that purports to enhance child safety by intrusively scanning the activity of children on electronic devices. The specific story in the ad: the software flagged something a teen was writing, then the people secretly monitoring the alerts looked at what the kid was writing and they determined it to be a suicide note. They immediately called the police, who showed up at the kid’s house and involuntarily committed him. The story then concludes with a rep from the company proudly saying “we saved a life tonight.”


It’s no surprise to you that I write, often as a way to work things out. Some of what I write ends up public, but plenty of it doesn’t. I did the same as a teenager. I wrote to vent, to manage my thoughts, as an outlet. If one day I was doing just that and cops showed up at my door because someone was secretly monitoring what I was writing and they decided that I needed to be committed, that would have been my supervillain origin story. When people would read in the history books about the atrocities I had committed, they would get to that story and go, “oh, okay, we get it.”

I have been involuntarily committed. It isn’t fun. It certainly isn’t a thing that heals you. What it does is teach you not to tell people anything. It teaches you to be afraid of sharing because it teaches you not that people will listen to you and support you, but that people will intervene.

“Okay,” you say. “But what were they supposed to do if they thought the kid was writing a suicide note? Nothing?” I’m so glad you asked. Well first, how about… calling the kid’s parents? Instead of the police? I mean imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Smith are sitting in the living room, they think Bobby is upstairs doing his homework, and suddenly the SWAT team bursts in and puts their kid in a straightjacket. You don’t think maybe there’s an intermediate step between “do nothing” and “dial 911?”

Cops are traditionally super duper bad as crisis intervention too, by the way. It’s not what they do. So in the middle of any mental health crisis of any kind, don’t call the cops.

But let’s go a step further. It’s not just that the service shouldn’t have called the cops in this instance. It’s that the service shouldn’t exist.

Everyone wants to know how to react to “warning signs.” You want to balance giving people their autonomy and independence versus reacting to potential emergencies. Or maybe you don’t care about balancing that, you just want to make sure you’re always ready to react. I’m telling you, it’s way too late.

Anything you do in response to a “warning sign” will be bad. It will be incorrect, not what the person needs, too heavy-handed, too intrusive, and do more harm than good. Sometimes in life you will have to do that, but it always represents a failure.

Because what you should have been doing is having those conversations their entire lives. By the time a kid is showing “warning signs,” things are really wrong. There are layers of pain and armor and your ham-fisted attempts will be too little, too late. You need to be having conversations about mental health all the time. You need to be building those bridges every day. “But my kid seems perfectly well-adjusted!” Great! I’m glad! But if you wait until they don’t seem that way, you’ve borked it up.

Best case scenario, the maintenance of a healthy bond helps prevent any emergencies while simultaneously strengthening your connection to your loved ones. Actually, potentially even better: your kid is fine because you’re an awesome and attentive parent, but some other kid is having a rough time and doesn’t feel like they can talk to theirs. So they confide in their friends instead, and one of those friends is your kid, and your kid says, “Hey, you should come over to my house. You can be safe for a while there, and my mom/dad is really cool about this stuff. They’ll listen without being judgy and they’ll keep it to themselves.”

The way to help your children isn’t to put them under 24/7 automated observation so you can safely ignore them until they get into the “red zone,” and get involuntarily committed by said automated observers. Like, duh. You don’t want an automated service to be snooping on your kid’s journaling, looking for red-flag keywords to call the cops over.

You want your kid to write because it helps them, and then voluntarily ask you to read it because that helps them, too. Make sure you build that open door every day.

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