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Teen Depression and Suicide: Know the Signs, Ask the Questions

An A/B honor roll student and a freshman volleyball player, Dejah Jones hid her depression behind a glowing smile. Whatever talks around the dinner table that she had with her family never touched on the difficulties she was having at school with other students. And on April 16, the 14-year-old with the infectious smile—whose parents described her as happy, full of life, hope, ambition and dreams—committed suicide. Her father, Lamont Jones, and grandmother, Brenda Talton, now see the connection between bullying and Deja’s depression and eventual suicide.

“You have to talk to your parents,” says Lamont Jones. “You got to go to people you love, you got to trust them whether you think they would understand or not, but you got to talk. That is the key.”

Identifying the Problem

According to suicide.org, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24 and dosomething.org states that 1 in 65,000 children ages 10 through 14 commit suicide each year. As a population, 20 percent of teens experience depression before they reach adulthood, and between 10 to 15 percent suffer from symptoms at one time. And while not all depression ends in suicide, adolescent depression is increasing at an alarming rate.

Melanie Cardone, a suicide prevention educator with Mental Health America of Fredericksburg, advises parents to learn the signs between sadness and depression, which are often confused and sometimes dismissed as teen moodiness.

“Sadness is for the moment. Everybody gets sad. Depression is more long lasting. Look for change. If you see change in your child—they’re becoming easily irritated, have difficulty getting out of bed or have changes in sleeping habits, they may eat more or less, or lose interest in activities they were interested in prior to—take notice of that,” she says.

According to Mental Health America’s website, sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, teens become depressed. Factors that contribute to teen depression may have ties to an imbalance in brain chemistry, a family history of depression, death or divorce or side effects of prescriptions. If you suspect that your child is feeling depressed, talk to them.

Opening the Lines of Communication

Some parents leave asking, “What’s on your mind?” to Facebook. Cardone understands that opening dialogue with a teen can be challenging, but she encourages persevering and having meaningful talks with your child. She advises using any of your available time to enter in to discussions with your child about what’s going on in their lives and what may be bothering them. She warns, though, that parents need to listen and not look to fix problems.

“Sometimes parents rush too quickly to solve problems, but it’s best to engage the child and ask them what they think will work or what’s helpful in a situation. We have to teach them how to cope,” Cardone says. “And we have to always make time for them. Let them know that you’re available to talk. A good place is in the car. We’re in the car a lot with the kids and its relaxed and you can talk,” she says.

Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, a Denver-based psychotherapist and social work professor at the University of Denver, agrees with Cardone. For parents to gain the confidence of their teens, they have to be open to listening to things that may be uncomfortable for them to hear. In her private practice where she sees and treats teens dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts, she says the number one reason teens clam up is fear of being misunderstood.

“The biggest reason that teens give me for not talking to their parents about their suicidal thoughts is a conviction that their parents will “freak out.” While extreme fear, sadness, and concern (what teens might call “freaking out”) are natural responses for parents who learn that their child wants to end their life, teens need to know that they are safe, even welcome, to share their innermost thoughts about this most important topic,” she says.

Ask Questions

If you think that your teen may be clinically depressed (see sidebar for symptoms) or may be experiencing external factors leading to depression or suicide—like bullying—ask them.

“Before I moved to this area, I did suicide prevention education and screening for a number of years in Ohio, and the screening question would ask, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself’ and kids would say ‘Yes.” And I would wonder ‘Why are they telling me?’ and it’s because I was asking them. If you think someone may be considering taking their life, you have to ask them,” says Cardone.

She employs what is known as an ACT model, developed by a group called Screening for Mental Health, to gauge risk factors. It’s something that children and teens can use when they suspect that a friend is considering suicide.

“ACT is an acronym which stands for ask, care and tell. So if you suspect that your friend is feeling depressed or sad and are thinking of killing themselves, you say, ‘Hey, I know that you’ve been feeling this way.” Then you show that you care, ‘I really want you to be OK.’ Show empathy. Then you have the tell a trusted adult. There are adults in the community trained to deal with these sorts of things. And if the first person doesn’t help (or they minimize the situation), find someone who will help,” Cardone says.

It’s important that parents and peers take depression seriously. Many parents may not want to admit that their child is depressed or suicidal because there is a stigma that surrounds mental health. But that sort of pride or fear could end with grave consequences.

“Parents are afraid to deal with this because they think, ‘My kid would never do that.’ It’s more socially acceptable if your child has a fever. You call the doctor, you put them in with your primary care physician. If someone is experiencing mental and emotional difficulty, it often times is difficult for [parents] to pick up the phone and make that call. That’s what we do [at Mental Health America], we want to break up that stigma so people will reach out to us and get help,” says Cardone.

Following the death of Dejah Jones, her friends, family and community held a vigil outside of her Newport News, Virginia, high school. They remembered their friend and loved one and the impact she had on their lives.

“It was devastating. It kind of hurt more that we weren’t aware, she didn’t have anybody else to go to,” says Terrinae White, captain of the Woodside High School volleyball team. “I’ve already talked to my team and I told them this is why I want the closeness. I want a big sister relationship between these two teams and I feel like Dejah could have had that, but we should have enforced it a little bit more.”

Join Mental Health America Fredericksburg on its annual quest to bring awareness to suicide. The 2016 Another Day: Campaign for Suicide Prevention is set for October 15, 2016. Come walk to prevent suicide and to save lives.

100 percent of the funds raised stay locally to provide suicide prevention education in schools and in the community. Enjoy music, dance teams, a raffle, a silent auction, games, food, and lots more at this family-friendly event.

For more information:

Email: Amy Jones at amy.suicideprevention@gmail.com.
Call: 540-371-2704

Registration: 9:00 a.m.
Walk: 10:00 a.m.
Raise $25 or more to receive a T-Shirt


Depression Symptoms

Depression symptoms can vary in severity, but changes in your teen’s emotions and behavior may include the examples below.

Emotional changes

Be alert for emotional changes, such as:
• Feelings of sadness, which can include crying spells for no apparent reason
• Feeling hopeless or empty
• Irritable or annoyed mood
• Frustration or feelings of anger, even over small matters
• Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
• Loss of interest in, or conflict with, family and friends
• Low self-esteem
• Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
• Fixation on past failures or exaggerated self-blame or self-criticism
• Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, and the need for excessive reassurance
• Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
• Ongoing sense that life and the future are grim and bleak
• Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide

Behavioral changes

Watch for changes in behavior, such as:
• Tiredness and loss of energy
• Insomnia or sleeping too much
• Changes in appetite — decreased appetite and weight loss, or increased cravings for food and weight gain
• Use of alcohol or drugs
• Agitation or restlessness — for example, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
• Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
• Frequent complaints of unexplained body aches and headaches, which may include frequent visits to the school nurse
• Social isolation
• Poor school performance or frequent absences from school
• Neglected appearance
• Angry outbursts, disruptive or risky behavior, or other acting-out behaviors
• Self-harm — for example, cutting, burning, or excessive piercing or tattooing
• Making a suicide plan or a suicide attempt
Source: Mayo Clinic

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