“It’s like being stuck in a box, you know you need help but you also do not feel like you should accept it.”
An anonymous senior girl, Jane (not her real name), opened up about her struggles with depression over the course of many school years. It was something that plagued her life for a majority of her high school experience. And, unfortunately, she is not alone.
Depression is mental health disorder that affects thousands of teenagers every year. Now, more than ever, awareness of the disorder is rising to help these teenagers, according to Mrs. Leslie Adams, a behavioral health specialist at NDP who is a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Depression has been a common mental health problem among teenagers. About 18 percent of America’s teenagers are officially diagnosed with depression; some seek help and others struggle alone, only raising the statistic. According to the Center for Discovery, an organization that provides treatment to adults and teens with mental health issues, only 30 percent of depressed teens are being treating for the mental health issue.
Yet, Adams said, depression is slowly increasing among students, but the awareness surrounding the disorder is what is helping boost those statistics.
So, is depression actually an epidemic, as some are making it out to be, or is it just another part of life, a hormonal stage made worse by a culture proud of sensitivity?
What is depression?
The Mayo Clinic reports emotional symptoms include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, emptiness, anger and irritability. Symptoms also include a loss interest of previously pleasurable activities and connections with friends and family.
According to Mayo Clinic, depression can look different depending on the person and the risk factors for developing the mental health problem vary.
“For me, I lost a connection with those around me,” Jane said. She explained that she felt so isolated because she did not want to reach out and burden others with her feelings. She also felt that she would be considered weak or unable to handle her own emotions.
These symptoms stem from low self-esteem, which can lead to sensitivity to failure and feelings of rejection. These effects are followed by a trouble thinking and making decisions, according to Mayo. The severest result of these symptoms is a dark and grim perspective on life with constant thoughts of death and suicide.
In addition to emotional issues, depression may present itself in other ways. The behavioral symptoms, stated by Mayo Clinic, include a loss of energy and insomnia, changes in appetite (either eating too little or eating too much), slowed bodily functions, including any movement or thinking, social isolation, self-harm, alcohol or drug abuse and potentially suicide.
A variety of factors can spark these symptoms among teenagers, according to Mayo Clinic. These can be social factors, such as being a long-term victim of bullying, being a victim of any type of physical violence, identifying as a different gender, or being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, or being in a high stress environment, such as high school.
Other depressive factors can be caused by or related to family; this can include living in a place of familial conflict, having a family member commit suicide, or having a blood relative who struggles with addiction. This type of depression is known as situational depression, or depression based on the environment of the victim.
Lastly, risk factors can be centered around a person’s physical health, such as bipolar, anxiety, eating, physical, or mental disorders and/or having a chronic physical illness or ailment. This is known as organic depression, depression caused from an imbalance of chemicals in the body or another mental health disorder.
Jill McMahon, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in grief due to suicide, explained that “some people may just be lacking a particular hormone or have a vitamin deficiency and that can be affecting their mood and energy.”
Haley Cabrera, an NDP senior, opened up about her diagnosis of minor bipolar depression. This means that she gets “violent and/or sporadic mood swings.”
Her diagnosis is a combination of organic and situational depression. “It [my depression] is genetic and runs on my mom’s side of the family,” Cabrera said. “But, part of it is also caused by my immediate environment a.k.a. my social circle and who I place myself around.”
Cabrera explained that she notices that her lowest lows occur when she is surrounded by negativity from bad social interactions. “At my lows, I feel extremely lonely and like there is absolutely no one that can help me,” she said.
She stated, “I also find that everything I do I am ashamed of myself for and I am super hard on myself. At my highs, I feel like I am everyone’s best friend and I try to do things that will make myself happiest in order to prolong my next low time. I try to make sure that everyone feels included and super loved, because I know what it is like to feel the exact opposite.”
Cabrera added that, on her end, her depression makes her feel lazy and unmotivated to work on school. “All I want to do is lay around; it’s hard to do work when that is all I want,” she said.
She also has times where she regrets this the next day, as it can affect her school day. Then, the cycle continues downward.
Jane explained how much she struggled internally while battling depression. She said she felt guilty that she was out of control of her emotions and could not stop herself from feeling certain ways.
Again, Jane said her family was key during this time; sometimes her family situation made things worse and caused her to fall into a deeper depression. To her, family was supposed to be supportive and loving but just became another stressor in her life.
Jane said that she started to isolate herself and react harshly in the most random of situations. She explained the downward spiral of over-reading social cues to lashing out at her friends and family to feeling more and more isolated.
She explained that, though counseling is valuable and important, due to her busy schedule, she had a challenging time making time for herself to get help, but ultimately, she knew she had to make the time. She thought that she had things figured out until college, until her issues started spiraling.
“Time is tough,” Jane said. “I know I should have held it [my depression] as more important, but I feel like I have other priorities.”
She later mentioned that she ultimately asked for professional help and has made significant progress. “I feel like I am finally happy again. I haven’t felt this way in a long time,” Jane said.
Anxiety and Depression
Robert Gwinn, NDP AP U.S. History and Psychology teacher, said there is virtually no difference between depression and anxiety.
“They are the same; they are really the same thing,” Gwinn said. “They are in the same family: the lack of a [certain] chemical [in the brain] will express itself as either depression or anxiety.”
Gwinn said that depression and anxiety feed off each other. He shared a scenario where students wait until the last minute to get assignments done. Then their grades start to drop, making them anxious. Then they stay inside more to get things done and not get good results and fall into a state of depression.
“The more anxious you feel, the more overwhelmed you feel; the more isolated you feel, the more depressed you feel,” Gwinn said.
Many students feel that the bar is constantly being raised and nothing is stopping it from getting higher and higher. For many, just thinking about this is stressful.
Another NDP senior girl, Sally (not her real name), opened up about her struggles with her anxiety. She has been struggling with this mental health issue for more than two years and is just now getting used to it.
“My main concern is failure. I feel like if I fail, everything around me will crumble,” Sally said. She elaborated that not only does she set high standards for herself, she also feels that there is a high standard placed on her by family, teachers, and for college admissions.
“There’s just a lot of stress that worsens [my] anxieties… tied to deadlines and expectations of success and stuff like that,” she said.
For Sally, this immense pressure to get into “good” colleges and maintain the reputation that she has built with her grades and former success is extremely tolling.
“I’ve got mental issues on top of normal student stress, but combating depressed feelings with teacher and family expectations on grades, school, and other activities really wears my down,” Sally said.
But she continues to push along and tries to have a positive attitude to help bring herself out of her anxiety ridden and depressed state.
“It is not always easy, but I need to surround myself with good friends and activities that I feel accomplished in and do well,” she said, adding, “sometimes a smile and a quick laugh can be the best remedy.”
Gwinn said this cycle and stress can be broken or helped by reaching out for assistance or guidance. Though it is good to talk to friends and family, he recommends seeking unbiased, professional help.
Is sensitivity the main cause at hand?
While some believe teenage depression is a serious problem stemming from real issues, others believe that it is the coddling of youth that makes some suffer from depression and anxiety.
According to Greg Lukianoff, the author of the Coddling of the American Mind, a new culture of protecting innocence and making sure that nobody is offended is causing more sensitivity in American culture.
With a wave of “trigger warnings,” a statement that cautions the audience that the content of a piece is potentially distressing, Lukianoff said that this segregates people who deal with the issue shown in the form of entertainment, isolating them and making them feel even worse. Something that was made to help people, according to Lukianoff, makes things worse.
However, regardless of new sensitivities, depression among teenagers is still an issue, according to Newport Academy, a rehabilitation center dedicated to helping teens with mental health issues.
It reports that 2.2 million teenagers deal with at least one significant depressive episode with significant impairments. Approximately 19 percent of these cases can be treated, some with counseling and/or medication, while the remaining percentage can be handled in different, unique ways, such as meditation, religion studies, etc.
Just because this generation of teenagers is considered to be more sensitive than previous generations does not justify why more teenagers have depression and anxiety. Many different factors cause depression or anxiety.
So, what’s the verdict?
Awareness, according to Adams. Awareness is bringing this issue to light and schools, such as NDP, are trying to combat it. NDP is trying to tackle this issue from different angles.
Gwinn said that the school is trying different ways to get the school to feel more like a community, such as the House System, which is designed to help lessen feelings of isolation. The school is constantly holding events and giving students a plethora of opportunities to get involved in the community.
Adams has been given her role at NDP specifically to be a resource for those who struggle with mental issues. She hears from counselors, faculty, and teachers of students who need help and is able to reach out to them.
Adams stresses that “there is no harm in asking for help.” She elaborated that using a resource, such as herself, is not going to make the student any weaker, but rather stronger to tackle issues one is facing.
Will depression ever be cured? Probably not. Are there measures taken to significantly lessen the 18 percent of teenagers who have the mental health issues? Absolutely.
For NDP students, Adams steps in to help them through personal struggles and mental health issues.
She works one-on-one to help students through any issues they may be facing, including depression. A trend that Adams has noticed among students is the negative stigma around getting help.
“There is no harm in asking for help,” she stressed again.
She explained that some students have a hard time accepting that they do need help and/or do not want to be judged for getting help. She said that she has few cases where the student comes in themselves; rather, most students are recommended to her by teachers and other faculty members.
Adams said that it is important to recognize the symptoms of depression in peers and, depending on the relationship, talk to them or recommend that they seek help.
If a student is really close with someone with depression, the first step is to show love and caring by asking what is wrong, she said. Adams recommends to be inquisitive and to find out how the student can help.
If that does not go anywhere, then the student should look to an adult so that the depressed peer can get unbiased help. Adams explained that a student should not push too much to get an answer as to not make the person uncomfortable or get even more closed off.
McMahon recommends to try to work through depression first without medication. She said that “things like talk therapy, getting out into nature or exercise, and diet have all been proven to have a dramatic effect on decreasing feelings of depression.”
Furthermore, a temporary solution to depression is movement, according to Gwinn. “You need a physical outlet,” he said. “Get your blood pumping. Break a sweat. Release some of those endorphins and you will release some of that stress and anxiety.”
The Harvard Medical School supports these statements; according to a study done, exercise can be just as effective as drugs.
Over all, McMahon said “if someone is experiencing feelings of depression, they need to find an outlet.” She elaborated that this could be any outlet, but it needs to be an activity that allows the person “to be able to release those [depressed] feelings, not holding them inside.”
From a teacher’s perspective, Gwinn explains that when he sees students struggling, he will keep an eye on them and check in with them. If he sees them get worse, then he will pull them aside and ask them how they are doing.
He stressed that he is always trying to understand his students and tries to help them to the best of his capability. If he still does not see improvement, he will then refer students to the Counseling office, specifically to Adams.
From a student’s perspective, Cabrera said that there is, again, nothing wrong with reaching out. But she explained that a person dealing with depression also needs to help their situation too.
“My best advice is to stop surrounding yourself with negative things and to make sure the environment around you is as positive as you can make it,” Cabrera said. She went on to say, “I would just tell people to start doing things to help themselves rather than trying to please everyone else all the time.”
The Mayo Clinic also advises people to act as soon as they see depressive symptoms in a teenager. “Depression symptoms likely won’t get better on their own,” stated Mayo Clinic. “They may get worse or lead to other problems, if untreated.”
If you are struggling with any mental health issue, please seek help. If you are an NDP student, please contact your counselor, Leslie Adams ([email protected]), an adult you can trust, or a life line such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.