Lost in the Dark: Teens struggle with depression during high school, find ways to cope with its effects

By Willa Simmet 2008

“I remember it was a Wednesday night,” she said. A very gloomy, cold and grey Wednesday night two months after Alex (whose name has been changed for privacy) started treatment. Her parents went to a Christmas party and left her home alone with her sister. It was a normal night at Alex’s house. She was working on her homework and watching television.

“I felt sick to my stomach, and I had a headache,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t care. I really didn’t. I kept taking Tylenol and Escripton. Eventually, the whole bottle of Escripton was gone.”

After this CF student’s 13th birthday, she went through six months of what was one of the worst things a 13-year-old ever has to go through. Alex was clinically depressed.

Twenty years ago, the thought of teenage depression was hardly even considered.

“People didn’t think it could happen; children should be happy,” said Waterloo psychiatrist Dr. Theresa Sakyiama. “It went unnoticed. Nobody sought help for the adolescents.”

Today, it is known that one in 20 teens are depressed. Of those, 12 in 100,000 cases end in suicide. More girls attempt suicide than boys yet more boys complete suicide than girls.

“This is a terrible thing, the worst thing that can happen to the parents, family and the psychiatrist,” Sakyiama said.

It is true that the number of young people suffering from depression in the last 10 years has risen remarkably, but this is because it is recognized that teenage depression can occur.

“We know what we are looking for,” Sakyiama said.

Today, there are more mental health specialists, more parents are educated about depression, the stigma is going away and the teachers are helpful.

On that night four year ago, Alex’s problem finally came home,and 20 minutes after they got there, they knew what was wrong.

Alex described the look on her parents’ faces. “My dad’s eyes were bloodshot, and his mouth was closed tight. My mom was crying.

“I remember lying down all curled up in the leather back seat of my dad’s Chrysler. It was dark, and the snow flakes looked really big,” Alex said. “I was scared. It felt like a monster had taken over me.”

Alex had a plastic tube inserted through her nose back into her throat and down into her stomach. Charcoal was inserted through the tube to pump out the toxins. Without immediate attention, she would have died.

“I remember waking up at the end of the night and listening to those IV’s and machines hooked up to me and seeing my dad in the chair next to me in the hospital room,” Alex said. “It hurt me to see my family hurting, but I just wanted to fix everything inside. The worst feeling ever is to hurt and not want to go through the day with no reason for it and worrying about when the next time you will be happy.

“People don’t realize the affect it has on one person, and people don’t realize that you don’t know what’s causing you to feel that way, so how do you fix it?”

The best thing for teens who may be suffering from depression to do is to realize that it’s not their fault, and there is so much that can be done fro them, Sakyiama said. many teens turn to sex, drugs and alcohol. They don’t turn to a psychiatrist until their parents find out that their teen is not behaving normally at home.

“The only way they can describe it is ‘blah,'” Sakyiama said. “They are in a black hole, and they can’t get out of it.”

Depressed teens are commonly very irritable and angry. They are always fighting with family members. It is difficult for them to get along with friends. They feel extremely sad and down. They lose interest in things they used to enjoy and have poor motivation.

“I stopped singing, and I lost a lot of friends,” Alex said.

Depressed teens may not be doing well in school and can commonly be found sitting in their rooms all the time eating much more or much less than they need to and experiencing changes in their sleep cycle, Sakyiama said.

They may have lower energy, self-confidence and self-esteem; and they may automatically have negative thought. In severe cases, teens want to die.

“I woke up every day and thought, ‘I don’t want to face the world.’ I was so unhappy I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t remember the last time I was happy. Every day, I came home from school and slept,” Alex said.

Finally, she was put on Effexor. Effexor works by changing the levels of two naturally occurring chemicals in teh brain, serotonin and norepinephrine. Luckily, it worked better than any of the medications Alex had tried. She still takes it today. The dark cloud has lifted.

There can be stressors that trigger depression.

“These can be any sort of social stressor such as divorce, parental conflict, school, abuse, illness or a breakup with a boyfriend,” Sakyiama said.

There may also be no triggering factor at all. Depression can be hereditary. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months or even years. Sakyiama said that treatment can help more than 90 percent of teens who suffer from depression. It is important to keep in mind that many teens may experience some of these symptoms but still may not be depressed. Moodiness is a common characteristic of teenagers.

“When it affects the individual’s ability to function, then it is a disorder and is called depression,” Sakyiama said.

Once teens realize that something is wrong, they need to talk to someone, whether it is a parent, an older sibling, an aunt or uncle, a pastor, a youth worker, an employer, a guidance counselor, teacher or friend.

“Many teens think depression makes them weak,” Sakyiama said. “They want to be brave and strong, not weak. The more open we are the better. Depression is nobody’s fault.”

Parents need to be advocates.

“As soon as your child has symptoms, go get help,” Sakyiama said.

In Alex’s case, after her overdose, her parents were skeptical about leaving her home alone if she had had a bad day or seemed sad.

Many teens are worried that nobody will take them seriously, that people will laugh at them, they will lose friends and be called crazy.

“Without treatment, depressed teens are at risk of hurting themselves, falling into bad company, having poor grads, dropping out of school, leading a life of crime, a negative quality of life and especially lost potential,” Sakyiama said. “Depression can happen to the brightest student; it can happen to anyone.”

Treatment also consists of therapy for the cognitive aspects of the depression, the negative thoughts.

“The way they view the world and themselves needs to be treated,” Sakyiama said.

Gradually the teen will want to return to activities they used to enjoy. Also the teen will have family and group therapy. The group therapy will help the familly understand what is going on and help them to cope with it.

“I share with teens and their parents some experiences and explain that I’ve seen several hundred teens who have had the same problems,” Sakyiama said.

Sakyiama’s biggest concern for depressed teenagers is suicide.

“I wanted to die, until I woke up and realized how sad my parents were,” Alex said. “I remember seeing my dad’s face. He was crying.”

“Keep asking your child, don’ t wait for them to tell you they are having suicidal thoughts,” Sakyiama said. “Parents think that they are putting the suicidal thought into their child’s mind by asking about them. They are not. I always tell the mothers to be with the child all the time. Give them a help line to reach out for . Ask them who they would tell if they had suicidal thought.”

Teens can also call the Family Service League’s Suicide Hotline at (319) 233-844, if they need to talk to someone.

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