The recent suicide of a young actress once again brings to the forefront the subject of teenage depression. Yes, depression is possible in both teenagers and children.
Depression among children and teenagers is not always easy to spot. “Unlike depressed adults, whose hallmark symptom is often a profound sadness or lack of energy in activities and [loss of] enthusiasm for the things they previously enjoyed, in older children and teenagers, depression often manifests as chronic anger, irritability and often isolating oneself, which parents of teenagers tend to dismiss as part of the teenager’s life,” esteemed child psychiatrist Dr. Cornelio Banaag says.
Dr. Banaag is professor emeritus at University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) and former chair of its Department of Psychiatry, and The Medical City. He is widely known as the founding father of child and adolescent psychiatry in the Philippines.
“Sudden changes in behavior or mood, isolating oneself, not contacting friends, refusing to go to school are non-specific signs of depression in teenagers. It’s not always just sadness,” Banaag explains. These are some of the early warning signs that parents need to look out for.
Some other indicators of a restless or sadness within could be the quality of creative work that is produced, such as dark or disturbing art work, the type of music that the young person listens to, or the images or words that they they use in their writing. Often a sense of worthlessness or helplessness is a theme in the writings of depressed young people. A palpable anger or rage is another running theme.
Banaag says that it is often better to err on the side of caution, and as a parent or caregiver, encourage the child or teenager to speak to someone.
“It doesn’t have to be a doctor. It could be a guidance counselor, a good friend, someone from your child’s support group. If you suspect that there is something going on in your child’s inner life, you must exert the effort to reach out,” says Banaag.
Having access to someone that they can talk to and pour their hearts out to is very crucial.
“Providing that access is a veritable lifeline,” he notes. If the child or teenager refuses to go for assessment, the parent needs to encourage the child to see the doctor or counselor even just once.
The key, Banaag points out, is to try and be attuned to your child or teenager.
“Of course, nowadays that is difficult to do, with all the pressures thrown at parents and a child or teenager can really prove to be difficult at times because of the particular developmental stage when their hormones are all over the place. However, whatever else happens, you must never lose the line of connection with your children, no matter how busy you are,” he stresses.
Making time to be with your child, whether it is over a meal, a quick trip to the grocery, or even just a few minutes at the start or end of each day, is very important.
“Teenagers tend to be monosyllabic or dismissive, but that’s part of being a teenager, so the parent needs to stretch their patience and understand. Do not make every encounter a battlefield and make the child or teenager feel worse,” Banaag says.
Of course parents still need to call the child’s attention when they are out of line, but there are kinder ways of doing it.
Runs in the family
I ask Banaag if depression had a genetic component; he says that depression can run in families and it is important to accept it, address it and talk about it.
“If you notice your child or teenager acting out in an unusual way, and you are familiar with your family’s history, it is always helpful to talk about the condition in ways that are loving and non-threatening,” he says. It is very helpful to know your family’s health history, not just the physical but the mental health issues as well, and not be ashamed of it.
“Depression is a highly treatable disease. When it is properly treated, it is easy to find hope, even if at the time of diagnosis it may seem very dark. And it’s not always through medication. Sometimes, all the young person needs is psychotherapy, which can be provided by someone who has been properly trained and who has the skills to spot depression,” Banaag says.
Social support is also key in the recovery. Some colleges and universities now have specific programs where children or youth identified to have depression are assigned mentors to help address the problem. In the United States, Project Semicolon (www.projectsemicolon.com) is a beautiful example of an advocacy that helps young people who struggle with depression.
I don’t advocate tattoos, but the symbolic semicolon tattoo can mean a lot when someone dealing with depression and sees it on his or her body.
“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”
In the Philippines, Banaag, who is part of the board of the Natasha Golbourn Foundation, says that there are Hopelines that have been set up to give young people and adults a lifeline. The phones are manned by trained professionals who help walk the depressed person from a place of despair to a place of hope.
Hopelines, currently available in Luzon, will soon be available in the Visayas.
The foundation hopes to expand these services to Mindanao and is looking for partners in the region who are willing to work with the foundation in setting it up.
In a world that seems dark and hopeless, sometimes a phone call to someone can provide hope and spell the difference. Like a lifeline, it can help the young person climb out of the darkness and find his or her way back into the sunshine.