When I was a teen, one of my friends’ parents and former neighbor, said that finding a depressed teenager is about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. He said it as a joke, and I laughed because I didn’t want him to know that I was struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide.
So much of mental illness is acting the part of a happy and together person. There are a lot of reasons for this, but most of them come down to the fact that there was, and still is, a stigma around mental illness, and the last thing any teenager wants is to be is singled out in a negative way.
I was 20 before I went to see a professional about my depression. By then I’d dropped out of college and lost the motivation to do much of anything. I have no doubt that getting treatment for depression at an earlier age might have helped me gain the skills I needed to manage it earlier and live a fuller life.
Fortunately for my children, and yours, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is taking proactive steps to ensure that fewer teens slip through undiagnosed, like I did. The AAP recently released guidelines on how to diagnose and treat depression, and is now recommending all teens ages 12 years or older be screened for depression each year.
Before I go into this change, it’s important to recognize how prevalent teenage depression is. According to the National Institute Of Mental Health, “An estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. This number represented 12.8% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.” This means finding a depressed teenager really isn’t all that far off from the fish in the barrel analogy used by my old neighbor. Depression is very real, and very tragic, and can lead to problems at home or school and increase the risk of suicide.
Dr. Nerissa Bauer, an associate professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News that, “…there’s a lot of uncertainty and violence in the world right now, which can be scary. While social media can be a great way for teens to connect, it can also allow kids who wouldn’t bully in person to bully online. There are a lot of stressful situations teens have to navigate in today’s world that put them at a higher risk for depression.
These new guidelines issued by the AAP acknowledge the fact that it is normal for a teenager to feel moody, particularly with the rollercoaster of hormones, while emphasizing the importance of training doctors to look for long-term signs of depression. These are symptoms that last two weeks or more. It is giving doctors additional training on how to spot and treat the symptoms of depression, particularly in teenagers. And it is legitimizing an illness that for so many years has been shoved under the carpet.
If you are wondering what you might expect from a future doctor visit, it’s nothing drastic. In fact, it’s little more than a simple questionnaire for you and your child. You and your teen will, separately, be given a list of questions about symptoms to complete. The doctor will then use the responses to guide a discussion with the child about symptoms related to depression in a targeted way. My middle daughter was recently diagnosed with ADHD and we did something very similar, and found it to be incredibly helpful.
While I was in high school, I was impacted by two suicides. At the time, I felt horrible about losing a friend. But now as a parent, I cannot help but wonder if they could have been prevented. I can think of little that would be more tragic than losing a child to suicide, but to compound the issue, to sit and wonder if it could have been prevented if better medical guidelines had been in place would eat me up inside.
Furthermore, as someone who has struggled with depression most of his life, I can say that legitimizing this very common, but often ignored and often seen as illegitimate, mental illness could easily lead to more children learning how to cope at a younger age that would allow them to live a fuller life in adulthood.
And honestly, isn’t that what all parents want? For our children to live full and happy lives long after they leave our homes? I, for one, am celebrating this change.