Thursday, March 12, 2015

Teens and Depression

Last Sunday morning, I received one of those calls that every educator dreads. A good friend from St. Louis called to inform me that a former student with whom I’d been close had committed suicide. I spoke to the student’s mother that afternoon, and as a fellow parent, I could only imagine what she was experiencing. Since hearing the news, I have alternated between shock and profound sadness, and I am still grappling with how this came to be. 

In his early twenties, Micah was a hard-working and successful student in the combined Columbia University/Jewish Theological Seminary program in New York City.  I had known Micah since he came to my former school as a ninth grader; he and I talked regularly about his coursework, religion, and politics, and we bantered about baseball and football (he was a rabid Cardinals and Packers fan.)  On a weekly basis, he would meet our older son, who was in elementary school at the time, at a local cafe to help him with his math homework.  As opposed to some tutors who would merely drill students on their facts, Micah helped our son rediscover his love for math by showing him games and puzzles that required mathematical thinking. I also recall how Micah supported other students emotionally who were having a hard time in high school and that he had joined the EMT program at Columbia so he could aid people who were injured or ill.  

However, there was another side to Micah that was not public.  Like many people, he had battled depression for a long time. During high school, he took medication, and for the most part, he had been able to handle what author Andrew Solomon calls the “noonday demon” in his memoir, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.  In college, the depression continued and when he turned twenty-one, Micah opted to stop taking medication. Retreating into himself, Micah became a hermit and could not muster the strength to interact with the greater world. Perhaps what saddens me the most is Micah’s reaching the point where he could see no other way to end his pain than by ending his life.  

As Micah’s mother and I spoke last Sunday, she voiced a plea.  She wished that people could understand that depression is a disease and that there should not be a stigma associated with it. In addition, she hoped that no other parent would experience what she and her husband had, and that all of us parents would pay close attention to our children, so we can be aware if they’re showing any of the initial signs of depression.  

I have linked a “Parents’ Guide to Teen Depression” in case you are ever concerned about your child or a friend of your child.  As the guide says at the very beginning, “Teenage depression isn’t just bad moods and the occasional melancholy—it’s a serious problem that impacts every aspect of a teen’s life. Teen depression can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, self-loathing and self-mutilation, pregnancy, violence, and even suicide. But as a concerned parent, teacher, or friend, there are many ways you can help. Talking about the problem and offering support can go a long way toward getting your teenager back on track.” Nevertheless, if your concerns are not alleviated by family conversations, we encourage you to add professional advice to your efforts.  As the article emphasized, teenage depression is treatable, and children of all ages depend on the adults in their lives to take the lead in getting help for them. If we all work together to help our children, perhaps we can decrease the occurrence of such tragedies.