I’d noticed the shift in my daughter’s mood over the last few months: always irritable, withdrawing into her room for long hours to do homework, unable to sleep well, spooning ice cream right out of the container late at night. I told myself it was the stress of high school and living in an unpredictable world full of bad news. Who hasn’t been rocked by the mass shootings, rampant wildfires, #MeToo movement and ongoing assault on our healthcare, financial security and civil rights by elected officials?
I checked in with my daughter several times a day. Did she need anything? How could I help her manage her workload? Was everything okay with her friends? What would she like for dinner? Each time she pushed me away, insisting she had it all handled, insisting I didn’t get it and couldn’t help.
I emailed her pediatrician who told me it was pretty typical teenage behavior, but to let her know if she continued to disconnect, especially from friends. My girlfriends with teenage girls assured me it was normal, that she was pushing me away to forge her own identity.
I wanted to believe my daughter’s mood was “just a phase” and that my once bubbly, bright girl would eventually reemerge. Deep down, though, I had that nagging sense that something else was happening. It’s that feeling you get in your gut, that mama instinct, that tells you your child is hurting – even when it doesn’t look that bad on the outside.
Then we received the email from her school telling us that a classmate had committed suicide. She’d moved across the country that summer with her family and started a new school. A few weeks later, she stepped in front of a train. My daughter knew her — not well — but she knew her. She remembered how she often brought homemade muffins to school to share, how she always smiled when my daughter said “hi.” Her death left my girl despondent, silent and vulnerable.
According to a recent report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the suicide rate for girls ages 15 to 19 doubled from 2007 to 2015. While it’s still lower than the rate for boys of the same age, the sharp increase for adolescent girls is a huge red flag. My daughter’s behavior already had me paying attention. Now I was on high alert, yet I still didn’t know how to convince her I could help without alienating her further.
She is my oldest and like every stage with her, we enter it together not knowing the best way to handle it. We learn as we go, navigating the road by instinct, stumbling then picking ourselves back up again. I needed her to trust me. So I backed off. I gave her some space and asked fewer questions, but stayed close. I puttered around the kitchen, making myself available whenever she emerged for an ice cream fix or bowl of popcorn. I tried to act nonchalant, but my heart felt as though it might burst with worry. Finally, a few days after the news of her friend’s death, my daughter came to me and told me her truth:
She said depressed. Not stressed or frustrated. Not freaked out or worried or unhappy.
I folded her into my arms, knowing all too well how she felt. I did not try to explain away her emotions or wonder if she really knew how she was feeling. We have a history of depression in our family, stemming from my grandmother and running through my mother and me. While my mom took medication for her depression, I’m in therapy for mine. I understand what it means to be deeply sad and not know why. I also know how it feels to squelch that sadness, pretend it isn’t there or have it morph into anger when it has nowhere else to go.
Being a teenager is hard. Teenage angst, haywire hormones and social and academic pressures all contribute to stress and anxiety. This is nothing new. What is new is the increased rates of depression among teens, especially girls. In a 2017 study, researchers found that one-third of teenage girls experience a first episode of depression by the time they’re 17. This is almost three times the rate for teenage boys and much higher than previously thought. Risk factors for depression among girls are higher than those for boys, especially when it comes to low self-esteem and negative thinking. Add to that 24/7 digital connectivity and relentless social media messaging, and teenage girls are continuously exposed to expectations and never-ending conversations that leave them feeling anxious and unhappy.
I was so relieved my daughter finally came to me and, in her own way, asked for help. For me, knowing is better than not and depression, no matter how daunting, is a known quantity. I know what depression can do to a person, but I also know the steps to take towards healing. The first step is telling someone. The next is getting help.
I wanted my daughter to know there was no shame in her depression and so, for the first time, I told her that I see a therapist for my own sadness. When she asked if she could see someone too, I told her of course, yes, right away. Relief flickered across her face. Maybe this is what she’d needed all along: time to figure out how to tell the truth and someone to listen, not ask questions.
Taking our kids seriously when they tell us they’re depressed is damn scary. We never want our babies to be so sad they can’t get out of bed. We never, ever want them to think suicide is a solution to sadness. Yet, like me, we don’t always know what to do or say or when the best time is to say it. What we can do is pay attention to their feelings, let them know there’s nothing shameful about depression and get them professional help as soon as possible. Our teenagers don’t need to hold our hands when they cross the street anymore, but they do still need us to hold them.