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Melissa Rivers Talks to Her Son About Mental Health and Her Father’s Suicide: ‘I’m Really Honest’

Melissa Rivers is prioritizing frank conversations with her family as suicide rates among young people reach alarming levels

Like all parents, Melissa Rivers has been forging through uncharted territory since 2020.

Her son Cooper went into lockdown by her side as his freshman year at college came to an abrupt halt. Despite a longstanding open dialogue about mental health between the pair, the unexpected household dynamic made communication difficult.

“It puts so much pressure on the parent. At least it did for me, because I had to be the strong one. I had to be the [one saying], ‘It’s okay, we’re going to get through this,'” Rivers, 53, tells PEOPLE. “And there were times that I said to him, ‘You’re miserable being here — trust me, I’m not so happy being trapped in the house either.'”

An advocate for mental health care since losing her father Edgar Rosenberg to suicide in 1987, Rivers knew it was imperative her family monitored one another’s well-being while the COVID-19 pandemic raged on. And as a board member of Didi Hirsch, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that provides free mental health, suicide prevention and substance abuse rehabilitation services, she was acutely concerned when the mental health crisis among young Americans approached a state of emergency.

“Obviously, I live in fear — the teen suicide numbers break my heart. And sadly, the age is getting younger, and younger, and younger,” says Rivers, who will be honoring the 2,160 lives lost to suicide each day at the Alive Together: Uniting to Prevent Suicide event taking place Sunday in L.A.’s Exposition Park and live-streaming globally.

Melissa Rivers and Cooper Endicott

“It was scary. With my son, I had to really encourage conversation, because he’s not the kind of kid that does that, yet he’s very, very sensitive. We had to talk about how hard it was, and encourage him and his friends to have these conversations.”

Rivers and her mother, late comedy icon Joan Rivers, became advocacy trailblazers by “openly discussing suicide” after their loss. Candidness about mental distress has “always” been a part of Rivers’ relationship with her son, but the challenges of quarantine “pushed it to the forefront.”

“We’ve talked very openly for years about surviving the suicide of my father, how it is not a solution, and the damage it leaves behind. … I’m really honest with the stories about what I went through, and what my mother went through, the issues it’s caused and the things that I have to be aware of as an adult,” Rivers says about conversations with her 20-year-old son. “I have abandonment issues that are very difficult for me at times for different reasons in my life, but my dad killing himself when I was 18 years old — it affects you. So it’s always been a very big discussion in our house.”

“Every time there is a very public suicide or things like that, we do talk about it. He, much more than probably most of his peers, has the vocabulary to discuss it,” she says of Cooper.

Rivers emphasizes the “bigger umbrella” factors that contribute to suicide risk when speaking to her son about her father’s death.

“I don’t think mental illness per se runs in our family. … I always am very careful about the implications of [saying] that, which can be so negative rather than saying, ‘Hey, my father suffered from depression, and we didn’t know it until it was too late and we had already survived his suicide,'” she explains. “So it’s like, ‘Hey, there can be a [genetic] component to that, just like alcoholism or heart disease or cancer, that you have to be aware of and not be afraid to address. If you’re not feeling well you’re going to tell me, so you have to also tell me mentally when you’re not feeling well.'”

Joan Rivers, husband Edgar and Melissa Rivers

The suicide prevention advocate’s dedication to promoting mental health care goes far beyond her own home. Rivers is encouraging others to join her in the fight to increase access to life-saving mental health services by donating to non-profit providers and participating in community engagement events, like this weekend’s Alive Together walk.

“You can save a life today. Literally, you can make a difference today,” she says. “People need to come out and support. Donate. Help places like Didi Hirsch, who can move the ball down the field not just on a local level, but on a national level.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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