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Dear Cassy: Helping kids through depression

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by Liz Schoeben

During my work as a school based therapist I am asked again and again by parents: “Is this normal, should I worry about my child’s behavior.” I think what they are really asking is, “Is this normal pre teen/ teen moodiness or is it something more severe like anxiety or depression?” The question is What are anxiety and depression, really? I am not big on diagnoses — I think treating the symptoms is more important  But here are the official definitions. Anxiety is a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry. Depression is a medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. It decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home. I see anxiety and depression as evil twins that usually exist together. Prolonged untreated anxiety causes avoidance of many activities and leads to depression. So the quick answer to the Should I worry question is, You know your child best  If you believe something is off go with your gut. A sudden change in behavior is often a red flag. Acknowledging symptoms early and getting support is the key. I will attempt here to give an overview of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts affecting our youth and what we can do to provide hope and support.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 24. More teenagers and young adults die by suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined. Four out of five teens who have attempted

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suicide have given clear warning signs. So if we can learn to identify the signs and how to respond appropriately we can provide support to 80 percent of the teens contemplating suicide. And the majority of youths who attempt suicide are suffering from depression and anxiety symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Some of the other risk factors include:

  • Making direct or indirect statements about wanting to die. Take these threats seriously. People who talk about suicide or reach out to crisis lines for support are 30 times more likely to kill themselves. Talking directly about suicide does not cause a person to act on this impulse. It actually provides relief to talk about these intense feelings with a supportive, non judgmental  person.
  • Previous attempts. One out of three suicide deaths is not the individual’s first attempt.
  • Lack of sleep. This cannot be overstated. Lack of sleep doubles your risk of completing suicide.

As parents, we need to support our children as they grow to become young adults with unconditional positive regard. Teenage brains are still developing so during these crucial teen years they are actually programmed to increase risky behaviors and be more impulsive. It is our job to guide them. An effective way to do this is to validate and normalize. When you child comes to you devastated after a romantic break-up don’t minimize the experience. Validate how heartbreaking this must be for them They may have never experienced this intense of a loss. And normalize these feelings. It makes sense they would be feeling so down after a heartbreak. Let them have their feelings before you go into problem solving or minimizing mode. Save the “there will be others “ speech.

In crisis: Text 741741 for free crisis support 24/7.

For more information go to SouthBayFamiliesConnected.org

Liz Schoeben is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In 2017, she founded CASSY SoCal (www.cassysocal.org), which partners with the Palos Verdes Unified School District to provide students with comprehensive mental health services.

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