In 2015, an estimated 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If it hasn’t impacted your family, chances are remarkably high that depression has or will impact a family you know. I’m very grateful for this guest post by Ann Brennan, a mom who has been through it with her daughter and is sharing the important information that we all need to know about teenage depression.
My daughter, Megan, was 15 when I discovered the cuts and scars on her arm. We were standing in line in an auditorium and to this day I am grateful for that setting. As my legs turned to jelly I was able to take a seat, avoiding an embarrassing fall. But more importantly, taking a seat gave me the opportunity to gather my thoughts. Depression makes so little sense when you are on the outside and it is so very easy to say the wrong thing, to take the wrong step or ignore the problem all together. I got lucky that day. Although it was the beginning of the hardest journey of my life, having that seat, taking that moment gave, me something to build on.
Over the next four years I put that lesson to work. I learned to think things first, to look forward, but also to look back and think about what we are doing, what we are learning.
So much of life is “if I knew then what I know now.” But never has that been more true than in our journey through depression with Megan. The good news is that other parents can learn from the ten things I wish I had known before we started this journey.
1. You are not alone.
I had never felt so alone in my life. I had never felt so much fear without knowing who to turn to. But what I have learned in the years since is that I was not alone. I just needed to start talking about it. Sharing our story brought others out of the woodwork and we have built a network of parents in our community who have all gone through it.
Although not everybody speaks openly about mental illness most people will open up once you start asking the questions.
2. Talking about suicide won’t make your child kill themselves.
Talking about suicide and asking the question “Are you suicidal?” is not easy but it is not going to cause them to attempt suicide. Sometimes they are just waiting for someone to ask. That question may just be the lifeline they need.
Talk saves lives. Once we were able to get Megan to talk about her suicidal thoughts we had a place to start and could listen and help her.
3. Use the resources that are available to you.
Even before I saw the cuts on Meg’s arms, I had gone to our pediatrician and asked for help. I knew she was struggling with depression but I did not realize how badly. Unfortunately, the pediatrician is not always equipped to answer mental health questions. Ours put us off, leaving me feeling helpless. What was I supposed to do now?
This is when I discovered that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is not just for the person who is struggling. I called the number for Megan and they helped guide us to the mobile crisis unit. The mobile crisis unit had so many of the answers we had been looking for. Most importantly, they were able to help us see that Megan needed some time in the hospital. The good news is that almost every county in the United States has a similar program for mental illness.
4. Mental health hospitals are not scary.
Unfortunately, television and movies have portrayed mental health units as these incredibly scary places. We found the exact opposite to be true. The mental health unit of our local hospital was calming. It gave Meg a safe place to be while she made it through her crisis.
5. Mental health hospitals don’t cure you of mental illness.
While the hospital may help get your child started on medication and will offer several days of therapy, they are not going to come out depression-free. The hospital is meant as a means of keeping them safe for a few days while you get doctors and therapists in place to help your child when they come out. Use this time wisely. Call your insurance, set up appointments with psychiatrists and therapists and schedule some time in the day hospital if needed for the week after they leave the hospital.
6. Find a therapist for yourself.
When I left Megan at the hospital the first time I came as close to breaking as I ever had before. Leaving her was hard. Was I failing her? Should I have done more? But I did not see a therapist and instead focused completely on my child without taking care of myself.
If I could go back and change one thing I would have started seeing a therapist immediately. I needed someone to help me handle my feelings as well. If you don’t take care of yourself mentally, it is very hard to take care of your child.
7. Depression is contagious.
When my daughter was depressed everybody in our family suffered. The more we focused on Megan’s depression the more we noticed the rest of the family struggling. Luckily, we learned quickly to talk about it.
We learned that pulling together and getting help as a family was the next step to coming out the other side of the crisis.
If you have one depressed child, pay close attention to the others, including your spouse. Look for opportunities to talk about feelings and steps you can take to come out the other side together.
8. Trust your gut.
Whether it is a therapist you are uncomfortable with, a medicine that is not working the way you want it to or the advice you get from the doctors, trust your gut. We had several opportunities along the way to question the treatment or advice we were getting and we are thankful we did.
Mental illness treatment is a relatively new field of study and you will find you get different advice from different doctors. We had one doctor who insisted we do full body checks for self-harm for Meg but we quickly learned this was not good for Meg or for us.
Trust your gut and trust your child’s gut.
Sometimes you will know more than the doctors.
9. Depression lies.
Depression tells your child you do not love them, they are not loveable, you would be better off without them. Depression tells them they can’t get out of bed, off the couch or out the door.
Pay attention to these lies and help your child see the truth.
Just yesterday Megan told me that one of the best days during her depression came when I insisted she get off the couch and go to the batting cages with me. Depression had such a hold on her that day but getting up and doing the opposite of what depression told her to do helped.
10. It does get better.
Megan turned 21 yesterday. She is a teaching assistant in a special needs classroom. She is going back to school this fall to get her masters in special education. She’s joining the college soccer team, going out with friends and enjoying a fulfilling life. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t have depression anymore, but it does mean she can handle it better.
She learned skills through therapy. She talks about feelings easier and she recognizes when depression starts to step in.
Being the mother of a depressed teenager is not easy. It was the hardest thing I ever did. But we made it through.
Today I work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention presenting Talk Saves Lives, raising funds through Burgers & Bands for Suicide Prevention and helping other parents get the help their children need.
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