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Jerome arrived home later and later after baseball practice. When his mother asked why, he became very defensive, stormed out of the room and didn’t come out until it was time for school the next morning. As the weeks progressed, Jerome’s parents noticed that their 15-year-old was becoming increasingly moody and irritable. When he did come out of his room long enough for a conversation, he would have very little to say about anything – including his friends, school and sports.
A few days later, Jerome’s father received a call from the baseball coach who was concerned that Jerome had missed a number of practices. When asked, Jerome said he was no longer interested in baseball, though he recently celebrated winning the MVP title for the second year in a row. Time passed and the situation did not seem to get any better. Eventually, Jerome’s parents learned that his grades were slipping dramatically, and the once outspoken Jerome now seemed despondent and unmotivated in class. After a couple of weeks, what looked at first like a “normal teenage phase” to Jerome’s parents seemed to be much more serious. What his parents didn’t realize was that their son was suffering from depression.
“Depression is a real, common and treatable illness that affects millions of Americans,” says Michael Faenza, president and CEO of the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). “As parents, we have to recognize that depression and other mental illnesses are just as real in children and teens as they are in adults.” As many as one in every 33 children and approximately one in eight adolescents may have depression according to the Center for Mental Health Services. Although many people recognize the warning signs of depression in adults — sadness, withdrawal and lack of interest — few parents are aware that the signs of depression may look differently in youth. Besides feeling sad and hopeless, children with depression may also complain of frequent headaches or stomachaches, become irritable or act out.
“Sometimes we only see the behavior problem, like when a child comes home from school in a bad mood and slams the door. Parents are most likely to react to the slamming door — the manifestation of the problem — rather than the underlying issue,” says Bev Cobain, R.N.C., a psychiatric nurse and author of the book When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens.
Depression is more than just “feeling blue” or having a bad day. Depression is a serious and common medical illness that affects a person’s mind and body. This disease interferes with one’s ability to function and feel pleasure and is accompanied by feelings of sadness, physical discomfort and withdrawal from people and activities. Children and adolescents who have depression can not just “snap out of it,” but may require treatment from a primary care physician or qualified mental health professional. “Ultimately, the consequences of undiagnosed and untreated depression can be extreme,” says Lindy Garnette, the mother of a teenager with depression. “Left untreated, childhood depression can lead to school failure, substance abuse and even suicide.” In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for 5 to 14-year-olds.
Bev Cobain personally experienced the devastating effect of suicide when her cousin, Kurt Cobain (lead singer for the rock band Nirvana), took his life on April 8, 1994 . Cobain remembers the media frenzy surrounding Kurt’s suicide as reporters focused on his drinking, drug use and pain expressed through his music. “Those were just the symptoms of his problems; the real issue was depression,” she explains. High-profile entertainers are not the only people who feel the pain of depression or attempt suicide.
It is common for parents to think that suicide is something that affects other families not their own. Suicidal thoughts do not discriminate and do not only affect “problem children.” Thousands of kids, from diverse backgrounds, consider taking their own lives — not to get attention, but to stop the pain, anguish and confusion associated with undiagnosed and untreated mental disorders. When depression goes undiag-nosed and untreated, living a “normal” life seems impossible.
Mental disorders are very treatable once diagnosed by a primary care practitioner or mental health professional. In fact, most people with depression can be successfully treated. As with many illnesses, the key to getting better is diagnosing the problem and having access to appropriate treatment. The sooner the treatment begins the more effective it can be. Treatment options include psychotherapy (talk therapy), psychiatric medication and support services such as peer support groups and social skills training.
“When a child has a fever, parents take the necessary steps to get medical care,” says Faenza . “The same priority needs to apply to treating mental illnesses. Kids want to know they can talk about their problems and that we, as parents, will help them do something about it.”
The Childhood Depression Awareness Program 2000 is sponsored by the National Mental Health Association.