We all have ups and downs. Some people are very moody and emotionally intense. How does a parent separate the normal swings of a youth's tumultuous life from a real depression that needs treatment?
Given that the Canadian Mental Health Association says that the total number of 12- to 19-year-olds in Canada who are risk for developing a depression is a staggering 3.2 million and suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds, we have to take this issue very seriously.
In fact, 20 per cent of us will be impacted by a mental health issue over the course of our lifetime, so this is every persons' opportunity to get up to speed on the topic. These issues don't discriminate, regardless of your age, income, education, religion, ethnicity or where you reside geographically. Everyone is within the grips of a debilitating mental health issues. Your child is not immune simply because you have a good home life.
Your first course of action is to talk to them. And when I say talk to them, I really mean LISTEN.
The teen years have always presented unique stressors, but in the digital age of cyberbullying, popularity contests over who gets more likes on their Instagram post and FOMO (fear of missing out), our youth never get a break from both the love and threats of social rejection.
Academic pressures, rape culture, coming out as LGBTQ, the sexualization of women that erodes their self-esteem are all current conditions that may not be on a parent's radar, but not a day goes by without youth being impacted.
So, how will you know if your child is faring well or slipping past the point of clinical depression? Here is a handy checklist. Notice that some kids act out, while others shut down. Regardless, it's the persistence of behaviours and marked departure from their normal state that matters.
Signs of Depression in Teens
- Extreme fatigue and sleeping long hours
- Inability to sleep
- Loss of appetite or eating a lot
- Excessive agitation, irritability, angry and hostile
- Withdrawn and reclusive, no longer wanting to see friends and family
- Marks drop at school
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Feeling trapped, helpless and hopeless
- Thoughts of suicide or death
- Physical pains, including headaches, but also muscle pain, stomach aches and other unexplained aches
- Teary and frequent crying
- Loss of interest in things that used to be fun and enjoyable
- Turning to drugs or alcohol as a means to self-soothing
Since we know that it is the unbearable pain of the depressive teens thoughts that can lead them towards considering ending their life, every parent should also know the these signs:
Warning Signs for Teen Suicide
- Talk seriously or even idly joke about committing suicide
- Utter comments like "I'd be better of dead," "There is no way things will get better" or "Nothing helps"
- Talk about why dying would be good (i.e."Then people would miss me and love me")
- Macabre death themes appear in their art, writing, blogs or social media
- Watch for extreme risk-taking behaviours that would qualify as "reckless" or "death-defying"
- Giving away their personal cherished possessions
- Emotional good-byes when departing, as if they know this will be the last time they are seeing someone
- Are they seeking out means to kill themselves, perhaps purchasing a weapon or accumulating pills
If reading this post has caused you concern about your child's emotional state, then your first course of action is to talk to them. And when I say talk to them, I really mean LISTEN.
It's important that you approach the topic in a loving and non-judgmental way that encourages them to open up to you. That can be hard for some teens at the best of times, let alone if they are feeling depressed.
Ways to help them open up comes from your willingness to hold a sacred space that doesn't make rebuttals or criticize when they talk. If they say "I am fat" and you say " No, you're not, your beautiful!" you are negating or minimizing their feelings. Instead, honour how awful it would feel to be walking around not feeling good about yourself. It's their personal truth even if its not the objective truth.
Share with them what you are noticing that has caused concern for you. They may not have noticed they are retreating to their room, that they don't have that zest and spark they used to.
Be specific about what you are seeing and why you are not going to ignore it. Let them know that no one should go through life feeling badly all the time. If they are not interested in talking to you about things (after all, they want your love and respect and may not want to talk about the nastier side of their life) then that is OK, but urge them to speak to someone, a trusted relative, sport coach, Kids Help Phone, a therapist or the family doctor.
Reassure them that these trusted people know we all suffer at times and it's not something to be stigmatized over, that help is possible and very effective. Why wait?! It's important that they help decide who they will talk to. The responsibility for taking care of one's self lies with your teen. If you force therapy on them, they can refuse to go, or go and not talk.
We need to feel loved, valued, connected, important and cared for.
Once your teen is under someone's care, you still have a role to play in helping them:
Humans are holistic. Our mental health is intertwined with our physical and spiritual health. Be extra vigilant to make sure you do all the good health stuff. You know the list -- eat well, sleep well, exercise and drink water. I know I know, boring but worth repeating.
Engagement. As difficult and resistant as your child may seem, socializing with others is key. Human beings need social relationships for our mental health. We need to feel loved, valued, connected, important and cared for. Try to find ways to encourage social connections. That includes making time for your teen and spending focused, fully present time with them each and every day.
If you are all ready doing this -- do it longer. Go out as a family or have other families with youth come visit. Success begets success, so they may resist initially but as they start to feel better they will be more willing to be social. See if they would like to join a group based on one of their interest.
Giving back. The best way to improve a person's mental health is to have them start helping others. SO simple, yet so true. This can be as small as caring for a pet, or being a reading buddy to a child who is struggling in a lower grade.
What could your child do to help a fellow person? Think about their interests and connect the dots. If they love to cook, would they like to take cookies to a neighbour? If they love animals, could you get involved in a pet fostering program? Finding a sense of purpose and meaning will boost their self-esteem.
Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Losing My Daughter Taught Me The Importance Of Empathy In Mental Health
- Understanding Teen Suicide Helps Make Sense Of The Heartbreak