Teenagers have fun and goofy times, but not always. Many have moody, negative sides with emotional thoughts resulting in major depressions. It is not always obvious or suspected. In 2020, depressions affected 3.2% of adolescents, or 4.1 million teens. By 2021, it rose to 20% and is likely to rise more this year.
“Sarah,” my active, community-oriented and on-the-go friend, has two sons. “John,” the older one now in high school, has been among the 20% suffering from depression. How did she realize that? Figure out how to deal with him? Manage to get him somewhat back on general track? Unfortunately, his father does not live in Santa Barbara, is physically disabled and unable to play a part.
“Adults want their child to do more,” she said, “and matter more than usual. They tend to measure kids by grades and what they’re supposed to do rather than what is inside their thoughts and what they expect in life.”
Sarah admitted: “I didn’t know that John was struggling in school until a teacher said, ‘He’s sad.’ He was reading above grade level, had a couple of friends but was crying, especially in class about math. I didn’t realize it wasn’t just about math.”
As it turned out, John has ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) with slow processing speed. He was smart enough to be in honors classes, but struggling. She realized he did not go straight from A to B, but would leave A, turn around and eventually work over to B. By sixth grade, the situation became more serious when he asked his mom, “Can you hide my arrows and bows because I’m thinking of hurting myself?” John said he was hearing voices telling him to kill himself. Sarah’s first thought was, “He’s only 11!”
Research has shown that depression declined in the 1990s, but then surged with attempts to commit suicide — the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. But how are teens getting more depressed than ever before?
No one knows why, but some experts have concluded that adolescents and teens face more pressures at home and/or school, worry about financial issues for their families, use more alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, and some have a family history of mental disorder. It isn’t only abused, neglected and at-risk teens who suffer. Children and teens battle disorders such as persistent depression, anxiety, antisocial behaviors or substance abuse. If parents face death or divorce, it adds even more trauma and disruption.
Sarah pointed out that when John was 13 years old and in seventh grade, he found school more challenging than elementary school. Life became self-harming, and he could be a danger to others. She feared his life would end in jail or suicide.
After that, Sarah enrolled him in a few programs. One was a day schedule to help ease his anxiety and maybe be less dangerous to himself and others. He improved, but it did not last.
In the next two years, he entered programs such as IOP (Intensive Out Patient) where John would go to school every morning and then into an afternoon program that lasted into the evening. Again, it was only a temporary difference. In ninth grade, he went downhill.
John’s younger brother could not understand why John made everything so hard. John then told his mom, “I’m so broken, no one can fix me.”
They tried residential programs in California without success. Finally, he spent almost a year in therapeutic Utah facilities, the last with 24 boys sharing similar issues. At that time, he was almost 16. It was a “game-changer.” He has since been home for almost a year with continued support and doing much better.
Sarah advises other parents: “I would absolutely recommend an experienced educational consultant who specializes in dealing with ‘troubled teens’ or younger. Mine was Lexy Spett of Spett Consulting in Thousand Oaks. She is a licensed therapist who helps families in crisis find better solutions. It opened up an entirely new world of options for us that no one locally had mentioned. And in the end, it’s what worked.”
Sarah has also thought about what she and many other families who dealt with major depressions have concluded.
» 1. It can happen to anyone, even with stellar parents.
» 2. There are many resources, but finding them is the hardest part.
» 3. Those teens cannot do it alone. They need help.
When we finished talking, Sarah shared her thoughts about John. “He’s not the child I expected. He can get overwhelmed easily. But he wears his heart on his sleeve with compassion and has the tools he needs now.”
— Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.