If you found your child's diary, would you read it? Marie's mother did, and it saved Marie's life. Fifteen Tylenol tablets was the only escape from the pain sixth-grader Marie could think of. She slowly swallowed the pills, then crept back to her room and crawled under her blankets, expecting to fall asleep and end it all. That night, Maria spent the bathroom with symptoms mimicking the stomach flu, and her world was still there to face the next day. That night, however, created a gut-wrenching fear in Maria's mother that something more was happening with her daughter. She was right.
The diary revealed that someone had seen Marie kissing the boyfriend of one of the "popular" girls. They retaliated by calling Marie names, spreading ugly rumors about her, and threatened that anyone seen with her would come under similar attack. Even her closest friends began to desert her, and the sad part was that Marie was afraid to tell her parents about any of it.
Perhaps you read about Marie in Family Circle magazine. The story was primarily an attempt to create awareness of the signs of depression in children. Among the symptoms to watch out for, according to a Vanderbilt University researcher, are: comments about feeling hopeless; frequent sadness or crying; serious drop in grades at school; persistent boredom or low energy; extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure; increased irritability, anger, or hostility; repeated complaints of ailments, such as headaches and stomachaches; inability to concentrate; major changes in eating or sleeping habits; threats of running away from home; and mentions of suicide or other self-destructive acts.
Today's teens are grappling with more worries than ever according to a recent study out of UCLA. It claimed that the emotional health level of students entering college had dropped to record lows, triggered by recession-related money worries and the increased pressure to excel in school. For vulnerable kids, the normal social complexities of adolescence can provoke a serious episode. As in the case of Marie, being bullied was bad enough, but it was depression that caused the urge to self destruct.
Parents sometimes attribute their child's behavior to just moodiness or going through a stage, and they ignore it. The difference between a passing phase and a serious disease is how severe the symptoms are and how long they last. It's one thing to be tired during exam week or after some strenuous activity, but being terribly tired for two weeks or longer might be cause for concern.
Experts encourage parents to seek help if they suspect serious depression in their child. "You wouldn't wait for a tiny infection to become raging pneumonia," notes Dr. Glenn Hirsch of New York University. "Mental illness is no different," he says. Untreated kids are at risk for academic failure and substance abuse - with consequences that may follow them, along with the depression, into adulthood. He adds, "There's nothing dangerous about getting your child checked out." And don't worry that others might plaster a negative label on your child and your family. There are a surprising number of children grappling with similar problems.
The current method favored by experts to detect untreated emotional illnesses in young people was developed by David Shaffer of Columbia University. It's a simple questionnaire that takes kids about five minutes to fill out, and you can find it online at teenscreen.org. It won't result in a diagnosis, but it might identify a teen who needs more evaluation.
The important thing is to detect the problem early. There are many effective treatments for struggling children, most of which involve a combination of talk therapy and medication. One doctor's goal is to "change their moods by changing their thoughts" and by learning to give more positive interpretations of situations and relationships.
It's important to remember that to the child, emotional hurt can be excruciating. Without help, some simply don't survive. Families should not assume kids will automatically outgrow depression. These kids need skills to better handle their lives.
Marie is now in college and doing well, but the journey was not easy. Can you imagine where Marie would be if her parents hadn't been there ... or if Mom hadn't dared to read the diary?
Dr. Connie Myer is director of the professional education department of Wheeling Jesuit University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.