Teen Depression and Suicide
The teen years are a time of change and transition, so how do you know if your teen is just experiencing the blues or if they’re going through something more serious like depression? Oftentimes there are signs to look out for: a state of sadness or irritability for more than a few weeks, withdrawing from friends & family, a loss of interest in activities they normally enjoy, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or guilt, changes in sleep and eating habits, an inability to concentrate, focus or remember things, a dip in grades at school, and thoughts of suicide.
In addition to depression, many teens also experience anxiety as well and fear what others may think of them, comparing themselves to others and worrying about their performance in school to the point that they feel completely overwhelmed and cannot carry out their normal responsibilities. This then compounds their experience of depression and deflates their sense of worth. As the director of Meier’s adolescent intensive program in Wheaton, IL (Breakaway), I have evaluated numerous teens who struggle with both depression and anxiety to the point where they have considered suicide as an option. These teens often feel overwhelmed by life’s circumstances, which they are struggling to navigate through, or feel powerless and scared by the intensity of their negative emotions. They often feel alone and just want the struggle to end. These feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness can be a gateway to suicide.
Suicide is not talked about, and yet it is prevalent. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), suicide was the second leading cause of death among teens in the United States in 2017. So, if you’re a parent of a teen that is showing signs of depression and you are worried about suicidal ideation, what can you do?
Don’t be afraid to ask your teen if he or she is feeling suicidal. You won’t be planting the idea in their head nor will you be increasing the likelihood of them carrying out the thought. You will provide them an opportunity to talk about their feelings and perhaps reduce their feelings of anxiety and despair. Negative feelings tend to go down when it is shared with someone who cares and listens.
Second, listen without trying to fix it. We may inadvertently minimize or dismiss their problem by trying to fix the situation. Try and put your feelings to the side and listen to your teen with empathy by remaining calm and reflective. Acknowledge their feelings of sadness, fear, or despair by stating “it sounds like you’re really hurting right now.” Oftentimes, I coach parents of teens in Breakaway to take care of themselves emotionally, so they are not parenting out of anxiety which can make the teen pull away or mask their own feelings for the sake of their parents’ feelings.
Lastly, seek professional help if your teen is expressing suicidal thoughts. It is important to take these thoughts seriously because he or she may be experiencing a significant degree of depression. Outpatient counseling or programs such as Breakaway can be a lifeline. Most of the teens I have seen want to learn how to cope. They have dreams and goals for their future and care deeply about their friends and family.
In Breakaway, teens learn how to cope with their stressors by learning mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal skills. They learn how to have healthy boundaries in relationships and how to communicate more effectively with family and friends. Finally, they learn they are not alone and have a safe space to share their feelings with love and support from other group members and a team of therapists. Healing happens in community.
Jane B. Jung, Psy.D. is the Director of Breakaway, an intensive outpatient adolescent program in Wheaton, IL and works with both parents and youth in fostering better communication and healing around anxiety, depression, bipolar, ADHD, grief work, and low self-esteem. She also works with college students and adult women in helping them foster connection and healing in their relationship with God, others, and self.