Teen Depression - Not 'Just A Phase'
Fifteen year old Amanda* believes everyone hates her. She alternates between fits of rage and quiet despondency, has trouble falling asleep at night, and even more trouble getting out of bed in the morning. She frequently refuses to eat, saying that food tastes disgusting. Her parents have noticed that Amanda's friends have stopped calling, and she hasn't been out to a movie or sleep-over in months.
Amanda has stopped participating in family activities and openly defies parental authority. She rejects attempts to cheer her up with 'Leave me alone!', and answers reprimands with 'I don't care.' Her disruptive and destructive behaviour is beginning to rub off on her siblings, and the continuous tension is beginning to poison family harmony.
Despite what many may think, Amanda is not going through a harmless phase of 'teenage angst' or 'the blues.' She is clinically depressed.
'One in five people in North America has suffered from at least one depressive episode in their lives,' says Dr. Robert MacDonald of Barry's Bay, Ontario, a G.P Psychotherapist and Fellow of the Canadian College of Family Physicians. 'If there is any family history of depression, this probability increases to one in three.' We may know someone coping with depression, yet unfortunately still not recognise it in our own family.
Common in children. Until about ten years ago, the medical profession considered depression to be emotionally and mentally based - the product of unhealthy thinking - and concluded that children lacked the experience and knowledge to get depressed. If anything, the kinds of behaviours displayed were attributed to 'unhealthy parenting.'
With a better understanding of depression as a biochemical disorder we now know that it is just as common in children and teens as in adults, though, tragically, far less often diagnosed and treated. Recent studies suggest 8% of preschool children, 15% of children, and up to 20% of teenagers are clinically depressed. In larger families, simple numbers suggest that at least one family member will exhibit some sort of depression.
While Amanda's depressive episode may end without treatment, she can't 'snap herself out of it.' 'The result of chemical imbalances in the brain,' Dr. MacDonald explains, 'depression is a genetic tendency triggered by a negative circumstance.' Depression is not her fault, any more than dyslexia, or acne. Nor is it the fault of 'a repressive Catholic upbringing', 'neglect' due to the number of siblings, or for that matter 'malevolent influences.'
Depressed children don't always act 'depressed.' If any of these symptoms have persisted for more than three weeks, Amanda's parents should contact a physician, recommends the Canadian Psychiatric Association. A medical and psychiatric evaluation will determine if she is suffering from depression, or some other ailment with depressive symptoms such as anemia, or mononucleosis.
- marked changes in sleeping or eating habits
- low energy level, poor concentration, complaints of boredom
- frequent outbursts of anger and rage, or mood swings
- loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities, or withdrawal
- many physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches)
- unusual neglect or concern over physical appearance
- increase in restlessness or decrease in movements and co-ordination
- drop in school performance due to absenteeism, alcohol or drug use, or school phobia
- generally depressed mood, feeling sad, or down
- thoughts or discussion of death or suicide.
There are three main types of depression. Mono-polar depression: severe depression that leaves the patient virtually incapable of even the simplest of tasks, bi-polar affective disorder: alternating periods of euphoria and depression, and dysthymia: a chronic low-grade depression.
Depression is the leading cause of teen suicide. Young people lack the maturity to comprehend the finality of suicide. When depressed, they simply want their pain to end. Most successful teen suicides are by firearm (boys) or drug overdose (girls); impulsive acts, carried out in a moment of despair. 'If you suspect your child is at all depressed, get the weapons out of your house, and keep all medication in a locked cabinet,' advises Dr. MacDonald. 'Far better to have nothing come of it than regrets for the rest of your life.'
With diagnosis, come treatment possibilities and hope. Anti-depressants will restore Amanda's brain chemistry and therapy will improve her outlook and response to stressful situations. An understanding of her condition will also aid the rest of the family's responses to her behaviour.
Therapy is especially important. The teen years are a crucial period of emotional and intellectual development, and depression seriously interfers with that development. The damage to self-esteem and relationships from even one depressive episode could have repercussions for the rest of Amanda's life. Medication may cure, but therapy will heal.
There are effective spiritual tools as well. Prayer - turning the entire family over to Our Blessed Mother's protection, and petitions to Saint Dymphna, the patron of mental illness - and the generous use of sacramentals are often effective in moderating or dispelling depression.
Be persistent and patient. Many health care professionals are not yet aware of recent findings about childhood and teen depression. If your family physician fails to take your concerns seriously, visit a local hospital or the school counselor. There are mental health professionals specialising in depression and other mood disorders in children and teens, able to address the needs and concerns of this group. Your pastor may be able to help find a Christian therapist or support group who will respect and support your family's faith while treating your child.
Do your research and find all the help you and your child need.
*Not her real name. Depression is more common in girls than in boys, possibly for hormonal reasons.
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