Recognizing depression in teens, and how to help

The most recent California Healthy Kids Survey, released in July, provided some encouraging news.

Begun in 1985 and conducted every two years since, the survey is intended to give information on school safety, drug and alcohol use, mental health and other factors to educators and health professionals. The goal is for them to possibly use the data to help them make decisions about the services provided to students. Overseen by the California Department of Education and the California Department of Health Care Services, the survey's findings are based on a random statewide sample of 36,500 seventh-, ninth- and eleventh-grade students.

The newest survey, administered beginning in the fall of 2013 and continuing through the 2014-2015 school year, found declines in several key measures since the previous survey administered from 2011 to 2013. In particular, the results showed decreases in overall alcohol use, binge drinking and marijuana use, as well as improvements in school safety.

But there was one area of student health that remained stubbornly and alarmingly high.

Key indicators of depression risk showed little change — or even slight increases — since the last survey. For example, feelings of incapacitating, chronic sadness or hopelessness were reported by 26% of seventh graders and around one third of ninth- and eleventh-grade students.

Nearly one out of every five high school students reported that they had seriously contemplated suicide.

To determine depression risk, among the questions that students were asked was whether they had felt so sad or hopeless almost every day, for two weeks or more, that it prevented them from engaging in their usual activities. The fact that so many kids answered yes to that question prompted a search for explanations.

State education officials said some of the negative findings could be linked to another indicator unearthed in the survey. Less than one third of secondary students reported experiencing high levels of important supportive factors, including caring adult relationships, high expectations and meaningful participation.

For worried parents, such findings present a series of conundrums that can leave them feeling adrift and helpless. What is the difference between typical adolescent moodiness and a more serious condition? How do we recognize if our children are at risk of depression?

And if we do suspect that something is wrong, what do we do about it?

I put these questions to Dr. Jerry Weichman, a Newport Beach clinical psychologist who specializes in children and teens.

"Adolescence is naturally a time, a stage of life, when kids feel lost," he said. "They don't know where they're going, who they are, what they're going to become. Kids are very cliquey. There's a lot of academic pressure, and problems with parents, teachers and coaches. Also, this generation is tied to each other electronically.

"It becomes kind of a toxic mix."

Amid all those pressures, it can be difficult to recognize the subtle signs of depression in kids, Weichman acknowledged. He advises parents to watch for eating or sleeping less; higher-than-usual levels of irritability; the inability to enjoy activities that are normally pleasurable; difficulty concentrating; a sudden drop in academic performance; and recurring stomachaches or headaches. A change in friends is another red flag, he said.

Oftentimes, it comes down to a parent's gut feeling that something is amiss.

"I've never seen a mother's intuition be wrong," Weichman said.

He counsels parents to resist having a knee-jerk reaction. Start with a conversation in a neutral setting. Be gentle and avoid sounding judgmental.

Assure the child that he isn't in trouble. Many kids will shut down and deny that anything is bothering them, but parents must be persistent. Let them know that there are concrete steps they can take to help them with their issues.

It's also critical, he said, for parents to have access to their children's cellphones and computers, and to diligently monitor their online behavior until they reach a certain level of maturity, which for most kids is approximately their junior or senior year of high school. The kids might put up resistance to such oversight, but parents must stand firm on this point, he urged.

In cases of adolescent suicides, "A lot of those kids would be alive today if the parents were smarter about them being online," Weichman said.

If parents decide to seek psychological counseling, they should select a professional who specializes in working with adolescents. Present it to kids as a family issue and a means to identify the tools that will help them work through their feelings.

Another important point to remember, Weichman said, is that children take their cues from their parents. If mothers and fathers are constantly expressing negative attitudes, kids will likely mimic that behavior. If parents are overly concerned about what others think of them, their children will notice.

If parents constantly swoop in to try to fix the routine sorts of problems that invariably crop up in their kids' lives, then their children won't learn how to cope with adversity on their own.

Above all, if parents suspect their kids are depressed, they shouldn't ignore the signs and just hope it will pass. Depression is treatable; recognizing it is the first step.

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PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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