About a week before Halloween last year, a teenage boy named Joshua committed suicide. He had graduated Grade 8 at my son’s school just four months previously, and in September he had started attending the local high school across the road. Everything was going well. He was adjusting to high school and making new friends, and he was happy.
Except he wasn’t.
About six weeks after the start of the new school year, Joshua’s younger brother Tommy needed help with his homework. He knocked on Joshua’s bedroom door and went in, expecting to see Joshua hard at work on his own homework. Instead, Tommy saw the body of his brother hanging from the curtain rail by a belt.
Nobody knows what drove Joshua to such a tragic extreme. He never spoke of any crises, there was no bullying that anyone was aware of, and he seemed to be fitting in well at his new school. In the absence of any other answers, Joshua’s family are slowly arriving at the conclusion that this was a case of teen depression that was never detected.
What makes teen depression so hard to identify is that so many of the symptoms and warning signs are seen as just a part of being an adolescent. As young people experience the firestorm of pubescent hormones, they start to speak and act differently. They become self-conscious about their bodies, they display the infamous “teenage attitude”, they fight all kinds of internal battles as they try to figure out who they are. Self-esteem takes a knock, they may become withdrawn, aggressive or both, and they start to guard their privacy more closely than before.
Yes, all of these things are typical teenage behaviours. But they are also typical behaviours of people experiencing depression.
It creates a minefield for parents, who have to balance respect for their child’s growing need for privacy with enough vigilance to know when something is wrong.
The Canadian statistics surrounding youth and mental illness are deeply troubling:
- Up to 20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness
- Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world
- Suicide accounts for 24% of teen deaths in Canada – the second leading cause of death in this age group
(Source: Centre for Addiction & Mental Health)
So what can we as parents do to keep our children safe from the ravages of mental illness? How do we tell if a teen is just being a teen or if there is something else going on? I did an informal survey of parents, teachers and mental health practitioners, and this is the advice they had to offer:
- Create open lines of communication with your children from as early an age as possible. If they grow up knowing they can talk to you about anything, they will be more likely to approach you if something is wrong.
- Make mental health a topic of conversation in your household, just as you talk about physical health. You encourage your kids to tell you if they are not feeling physically well – the same should happen if they are not feeling mentally well.
- Allow your teen to have privacy, but establish an understanding that his or her privacy only goes so far. Social media accounts should be set up under your supervision, and you should know the passwords.
- Ensure that your teen has access to a trusted adult apart from you. Every adolescent has things that they are not comfortable talking to their own parents about, but they still need guidance on those things. It could be an aunt or uncle, a teacher, or a family friend.
- Watch out for changes in behaviour patterns. It is normal for teens to go through periods of being irritable or emotional. If it lasts for a longer time than usual, or if it is accompanied by changes to eating or sleeping patterns, there might be something going on.
- If your teen starts to wear clothing that doesn’t make sense – such as long sleeves in summer – they may be hiding the marks of self-injury.
- When in doubt, simply ask. Many teens struggle alone with depression or anxiety because they simply don’t know how to talk about it. All they need is for the conversation to be opened.
Teen depression – or any mental illness – is very frightening for the teenager, and for the loved ones. The bad news is that right now, mental health services are only being provided to one in five Canadian kids who need them – mostly because the need is not being identified. The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, getting help can make a huge positive difference in the lives of these kids.
How do you approach discussions of mental illness in your family? Have you ever had to seek treatment for a child or a teenager suffering from a mental illness?
Today, January 27th, is Bell Let’s Talk day in Canada. For every tweet using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag, and for every Facebook share of the image in this post, Bell Canada will donate five cents to mental health initiatives.
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Kirsten Doyle. Image courtesy of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign for mental health awareness.