Depression is a horrible illness. No parent wants to see their adolescent go through it. Yet 15 percent (1.2 million) of Canada’s children and youth are affected by a mental illness on any given day.
It’s probably safe to assume that most parents know what to look for if they suspect that their teenager is depressed. The signs of depression are fairly well known: apathy, sadness, isolation. The problem is, by the time these signs start to appear, it’s too late. Your teenager is already mired in negative and possibly suicidal thoughts and there is no way to instantaneously reverse them. Thus begins the long and difficult process to restore the child’s feelings of self worth.
This being said, there are things that parents can do to promote good mental health for their kids. The key is to watch out for things that occur before the signs of depression start to appear. I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but I am a parent who has seen and lived through the experience. These are the lessons that I learned.
1. Your Teenager Has Virtually no Time for Herself
Your teenager is the ultimate over-achiever. She has good grades in school, plays competitive hockey five times a week, is involved in a dozen school groups and committees, all while holding down a part-time job at McDonald’s. She often stays up late at night, trying to catch up on schoolwork or other things she wasn’t able to do during the day simply because there weren’t enough hours to do it all.
All this multitasking and non-stop activity are a real threat to your teenager’s physical and mental health. When every day is scheduled down to the minute, there is no room to relax and breathe. Stress and anxiety can and will build to the point of becoming unmanageable.
Now is the time to put a stop to all the frantic activity and have an open and frank conversation with your teenager about her schedule. Try to understand why she is driving herself so hard. Does she feel pressure from you or others to do everything? Or is she putting pressure on herself? For some, the desire to do and succeed at everything may be a sign that they lack confidence or have low self-esteem. They may be trying to gain approval and feel that they are worthy of love and respect.
Keep in mind that your teenager will probably not tell you in so many words that she feels worthless or unlovable. You will need to pay attention to the words she does use and possibly have to ask pointed questions to draw the true feelings out, such as “How would you feel if you weren’t part of that school committee?” or “What would happen if you failed that exam?” If you see indications of sadness or low self-worth, talk to her about them and encourage her to get help by talking to a mental health professional.
2. Your Teenager Has Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep
Inability to sleep may be a by-product of depression, but it may also be a sign of something to come. Michael Perlis, researcher and Director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, found that insomnia can precede a depressive episode by as much as five weeks.
“Disordered sleep sets off a cascade of symptoms. It leads to fatigue, irritability, memory and concentration problems, loss of interest in social and other activities and the inability to draw pleasure from them. The fatigue strips away libido. Weight loss could follow extended sleep loss. Insomnia, in short, becomes depression.”
Many things can cause insomnia but anxiety and an overactive lifestyle are key factors. Both have the potential to pump up the adrenaline in the body and create racing thoughts that can keep a teenager up at night. If your adolescent tells you that his mind races incessantly when he tries to go to sleep, or he can’t fall or stay asleep, take steps to find the root cause and address it. According to Dr. Perlis, treating insomnia may prevent a first episode of depression or at least keep it from becoming chronic.
3. Your Teenager Is Experiencing Stressful Life Events
Life throws curveballs at us: illness, death, divorce, loss of a job. Unfortunately, we can’t go back to the bench and sit out the inning. We have to swing the bat and hope that we’ll hit the ball or hope that the pitcher is having an off day and will force a walk to first base.
Dealing with one stressful life event is mentally and physically exhausting but in most cases, teenagers are capable of dealing with it. But what happens when several curveballs are thrown their way all at once? Mom and Dad split up, forcing a move and a change to a new school. Grandma passes away a week later, right around the time the school bully decides to make your teenager his new punching bag.
Simultaneous and ongoing stressors can have a significant impact on anyone, but teenagers are particularly affected. How can a young person stay positive and energetic when everything seems to be going to hell in a hovercraft? The more stressful events there are, the higher the risk that your teenager will experience a major depression.
While you may not be able to reduce or eliminate all of the stressful events in your child’s life, you can provide support by paying attention to them and keeping the lines of communication open. Talk to your son or daughter about the stress they may be experiencing and how it makes them feel. Sharing your own feelings might encourage them to open up as well. If they have trouble talking to you about it, make sure they have someone else that they can turn to. A mental health professional is highly recommended if you can convince your teenager to go. If not, try to find another adult that you both trust.
Mental illness is not a topic that all parents intuitively understand or proactively research — until it happens to them or a member of their family. By remaining tuned in and aware of their teenager’s world and how it affects them, and ensuring that they have the right support mechanisms, parents can take an important step to promoting good mental health for their child right into adulthood.