“Like many of the 121 million people worldwide who suffer from depression, Breel said he was leading a double life. In high school, while everyone else saw a happy popular kid and star on the basketball court, deep inside there was a boy tortured by intense pain that kept ratcheting up. I’d look at the school. And I would know in my head that I’m about to walk in there and smile, laugh, high-five people, and put on a total front. Real depression isn’t being sad when something in your life goes wrong, real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right.”
This is the story of a 17-year-old, Kevin Breel, who was depressed for a long time, he got to a point wherein he even contemplated committing suicide but stopped himself. Depression affects about 20% of adolescents. So, in reality, what is depression amongst teens? What are the symptoms? Why does it happen? And most importantly, what can be done to prevent it?
“Depression is an internalising disorder, i.e. one that disturbs a patient’s emotional life, rather than an externalising one, which takes the form of disruptive or problematic behaviour.” It’s one of the most severe mental health problems, it causes persistent feelings of sadness, makes one lose interest in activities, and affects how the teenager thinks, behaves and feels, and could cause emotional, functional and physical problems.
There are two types of depression – major depressive disorder (the most popular form of depression, symptoms that occur may be severe and last from 7-9 months) and dysthymia (symptoms are milder, but they last longer – sometimes even years). Teen depression isn’t a form of weakness or something that can be overcome just by being strong – it has a substantial amount of consequences and needs long term help. The symptoms are sometimes toned down by a specific form of medication, counselling or psychological support from a professional. However, why does this happen?
To begin with, they are inclusive of a teenager’s past attitude and demeanour that can be a reason for a large amount of distress. Problems at school, or home, in social settings are all reasons as to why a teen might get depressed. The one thing people are known to notice first is withdrawal symptoms when a teenager stops doing things he/she usually enjoys doing, things such as changes in their mood, changes in their behaviour, sleep levels, and academic performance are signs that there might be teen depression.
Kids suffering from depression may sleep a lot, show changes in their eating habits; some of them may even exhibit criminal behaviours such as shoplifting etc. Since teenagers can sometimes be moody, it’s hard to recognise when one’s son/daughter is in depression and needs serious help.
Shweta Kargaonkar, a clinical psychologist, said “there is a neurotransmitter called serotonin, serotonin is responsible for balancing your mood, and that is what gets affected when a person is going through depression. So if you can’t balance your moods, they can swing either way. And a low mood can be for a certain day, a certain time, but all of these other things won’t accompany it. And also, it has to be over two weeks at least; you have to have a persistent feeling. Obviously, you have to have certain circumstances in your life, because depression is not just because of mood issues, it can sometimes be genetics. So, multiple factors make a person predisposed to depression, and it is really up to a trained psychologist or a psychiatrist, or a health practitioner to identify that.”
Since it is now established that teen depression is a significant and pressing issue, it’s now only about how to help teens, and what parents, specifically, could do to help their teen overcome such a phase.
To begin with, every parent should be supportive. One of the most important things they can do when their teen is going through something like this is to work on making their relationship stronger. It could be frustrating that the child is frustrated and irritable all the time, but building empathy and understanding for their situation will only help them. Being compassionately curious could also be very vital, and if need be, ask the teenager questions about their mood gently, without making it seem like you’re attacking them – soul loving, not critical.
Secondly, a parent should be able to listen without judgement. Try to listen to your child talk about their problems, let them know that you hear them and you’re trying to understand – don’t try to fix the situation constantly. Teenagers don’t want to be “fixed”, listening will help the teen make you an ally and someone they can lean on when in need of a conversation. “For some parents, this can feel passive, as though you’re not doing enough. But being there for him and communicating your acceptance of him is exactly what he needs from you right now. It’s a very effective way to strengthen your relationship.”
Thirdly, it’s essential to accentuate the positive. Be sure to notice the good, positive and healthy things the teenager is doing, such as – going to school, doing a part-time job, doing the dishes etc. There can be many good things they are doing, but it’s crucial to recognise and acknowledge these things as opposed to thinking “this is what he/she should be doing”, everyone likes to be appreciated for doing a good job, even if it’s nothing extraordinary.
Similarly, it’s redundant to mention that you’re disappointed that your teenager isn’t hanging out with his/her friends, or that the teen is losing interest in something else. They probably feel horrible about it as well, and the teenagers need not be reminded of all the bad in their life. It’s important to remember that they don’t want to feel this way, and if they could snap their fingers and make it better, they would.
Fourthly, it’s important to push teenagers to get treatment, if and when needed. Some teenagers would want to go to therapy when asked, and some will be resistant to it. For those who are, it’s essential to know that they will not instantly be open to the idea of therapy, but over time, you can help guide them towards treatment by patiently waiting for them to warm up to the idea. Let them know that you’re here for them, and you have some “ideas” that you think could help them, maybe ask the teenager if they have any ideas.
The conversation could go two ways, either the child could agree, and in that case, you need to be prepared. Find two or three therapists that the child can interview, and make sure she chooses the one she’s most comfortable with. However, if the conversation goes the other way and they tell you to back off – be prepared for that as well. It’s normal for teenagers to want independence, and you need to respect that.
All in all, although this problem is a major one, and there are many negatives to it, there are still many ways to overcome this issue. And building a strong relationship with your child, helping them understand themselves better and being their “rock” during this time, is crucial for parents to do, as it will help them realise that there are people on their side and that they can overcome this phase of life.
Teenagers also tend to be extremely close to people they interact with outside of their family, and usually, have many friends. Therefore, there is a huge role they can play as well (when it comes to helping this teenager).
To begin with, friends need to get informed. If you’re not exactly sure what depression is, and what depression could look like, educate yourself. Become informed. A fantastic way to help your friend is to know more about what they are going through, which will help you better understand and sympathise with their situation.
Secondly, it’s vital for them to be there to listen. If and when your friend wants to talk, ask them how they’re doing. Try asking questions along the lines of “What can I do to help?”, and “What do you find helpful?”. In a case wherein you’d like to bring up a touchy subject, or a sensitive issue with a friend, pick a time and place wherein they are calm, comfortable and relaxed and approach it in an appropriate manner. If they are upset, avoid talking to them about it then and there.
Thirdly, taking their feelings seriously will help them a lot, and will make them feel like someone cares. If your friend suffers from symptoms of depression, it’s not possible for them to “snap out of it”, “cheer up”, “get over it”, or “forget about it.” When they talk about something, don’t disregard it and consider it unimportant, instead validate their feelings. Let them know that you acknowledge how they feel by saying things like “that must be hard”, or “I’m here when you want to talk.” Small gestures such as these will help them know that they have a shoulder to cry on, and someone to rely on, someone who will be there for them.
Fourthly, let them know about school counsellors or support services. If your friend has already visited a psychologist or a mental health professional, then that’s great. You could let them know that there are counselling services online, and try recommending a few people or therapists they could go to, to better their state of mind. People like teachers who are stationed in school and sense something can also try helping the teenager.
Furthermore, maybe them visiting a counsellor in school will be helpful as well. Perhaps before they are in a place where they need to visit support services, they can take a small step by seeing a school counsellor and seeking help. However, don’t push this. Bring it up subtly, don’t force your opinion onto them and remind them that whatever they decide to do, is okay.
And lastly, respond to emergencies. If you feel like your friend is at risk of hurting themselves, or taking drastic measures, seek help immediately. Be aware of the situation, contact helplines and make sure you’re able to deal with it most calmly and logically possible. Ensure that you’re aware of what’s going on in their life, and you’re ready to help them as and when you feel they need it (especially if it gets to a stage wherein they are suicidal or try to hurt themselves).
In conclusion, being friends with, or in a relationship with, or parenting someone who suffers from depression is a tough task to take on and hold yourself responsible for. Make sure you do everything in your power, and your ability to help this person. Try getting them help as much as possible, speaking to counsellors or support services is not a bad idea in this situation.
Be the one person they can rely on upon through this hard time because all they need right now is some support. Ensure you don’t get stressed out and can monitor your moods and state of mind alongside theirs. Care and be there for them, but make sure you’re not doing that at the cost of your mental health and stability. Teen depression is a grave, urgent and pressing issue that needs to be paid more attention and focus to. Every person reading this can make a difference, help a person if you feel like they’re in a bad mental space, do everything you can because of every little piece of advice or help you give them, will do them wonders in the long run.