Friday, June 17, 2011

Depression in young people.

It's been a while since my last post. This one has required a lot of reading and phone calls and research online before I felt comfortable making a legitimate post on the subject. It will be a long post I am afraid as I have a lot to say and would like to give the topic the justice it deserves. Some of the post comes from my experiences as a parent, some from a gut feeling I have but most is based on what I have learned from speaking to professionals and reading about the subject matter.

A little while ago I wrote a post on suicide in our youth and the appalling statistics we have in our region, most notably on the south side. This post garnered many, many e-mails, some giving information on the services available locally but most focused on one thing. Depression.

Several were from concerned young people wanting to know more about depression and it's signs. Some wanted to know more about what I thought the root cause of the rise in depression might be and many just wanted to know what we are doing wrong.

I am not, nor will I ever be, a trained doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist. There is no substitute to calling a professional and asking them for help or assistance either for yourself or to enable you to support a friend or family member. I do not profess to hold the answers, nor will I attempt to guess but I have researched my little heart out and feel reasonably confident in voicing the following but am equally sure that these words will raise the ire of some. So be it. This is about speaking out and keeping the words 'depression' and 'suicide' in the public domain until solutions are found.

Our children are taught about their bodies and inappropriate touching from a very young age now. From just 4 years of age they are participating in programs which help to ensure that they are aware of their 'private' bits and feel comfortable in speaking out if their personal security is threatened. This program is delivered by professionals and is very successful in it's goal.

What it perhaps fails to recognise is that while it encourages children to take responsibility for their own welfare and empowers them in that way, it may also lead to them feeling like parts of their own bodies are taboo, even to themselves. At the same age, most of us were playing naked in the local streams and rivers. We had no inhibitions and no fear either. Inhibitions in very young children may help lead to insecurity in the same child as a teen. Poor body image is a known factor in depression, particularly amongst girls. Is this program the beginning of low self-esteem?

At age 5 they are starting school and parents suddenly become the great protector. The enemy? Bullies. As parents we know that the school yard is the breeding ground for most adult bullies and our aim is to protect our children from them. The schools all have anti-bully programs and each one is reporting some success.

Somebody said to me recently that when they went to school there were nerds, sports stars, arty types, loners and the 'cool kids'. To survive school they simply found others with the same 'affliction', formed a group and enjoyed having a place they could just be themselves. By stamping out bullying and encouraging our kids to have the same reactions to every moment, are we stifling their individuality and teaching them all to conform?

While we work hard in the school environment to ensure that every child is educated in an individual way to allow them to reach their full potential, we are encouraging their social skills into a conformist, narrow line of conduct. For those children who do not fit into that mould, instead of letting them be shy, loud, quirky or anxious, we put them through programs that will make them confident, well spoken, 'normal' and unemotional. Is this programming the beginning of low self-esteem by making children feel 'weird' about the fact that they are different?

At the same time as this is occurring at school, parents are now scared of abductors and paedophiles and every action they do for their child bears this in mind. Children no longer ride their bikes through the suburb and if they do have parents that allow that, we call the children hoods and their parents lazy.

I let my nine year old daughter walk down to the shop a few weeks ago (which is about 150 metres return)to get some milk. I was very proud of her for completing the journey on her own and for doing it so quickly. She was beaming with pride as she recognised that we trusted her to make safe choices and were willing to let her take some responsibility for that. When I mentioned it to friends they were horrified. I felt like a terrible mother who had severely neglected my own child. Of course, in hindsight, I realised I hadn't. And she has made the trip again several times.

The case of Daniel Morcombe and his parents relentless push for childhood security has created a fear that is not justified. Daniel was the exception, not the rule. It is a very, very unlucky parent who has to go through what they have gone through. In the years since his apparent abduction, there have been no cases that I could find of a child being abducted by a stranger in Queensland.

When my son was three he disappeared in Cairns Central near Myer. I was with two other mums and their sons and my boy was nowhere to be found. As the time grew longer while we searched for a sign of his whereabouts, my first thought was not that he had been stolen, it was the fear that he may have gone to the car park and at that age he was not traffic savvy. All those who helped us search though, were worried he'd been abducted. The fear that 'bad people' are everywhere just waiting for you to take your eye off your child for a second, is a real one, but without any basis in fact. We found him of course, in the cinemas, having a wonderful time without a care in the world. Cheeky bugger. After the lecture that followed, he has lived the next 3 years of his life without disappearing again. Are we over-protecting our children? Is this the stage in life where their self-esteem suffers most because we project our own fears onto them?

The conflict between empowering them with the knowledge of what is okay and what is not as far as their own little bodies are concerned and in the playground when confronting a bully, then forcing them to stay by your side for the next 10 years without moving more than three steps away must surely result in confusion.

Then they grow a little more and reach high school. At this point all of the programming is thrown out the window. Children are expected to have reached the point where they are capable of making decisions with confidence, they are capable of speaking out when threatened, they are capable of fitting in and they are capable of balancing their home life, school work and social network. Add advanced skills in technological advancements and these kids should be ready to take on the world. Fairly obviously, they aren't.

Hormones have a lot to answer for and in this instance they are often the final trigger. Having been taught for so many years about emotional stability only to have your emotions meandering about, completely out of your control, is frightening. Control of your body as a very young person was paramount to survival...suddenly it's near to impossible. All of the things you were taught were wrong and were trained to avoid are now an everyday occurrence. Nobody tells you it's okay to have a bad day, it's okay to get angry and it's okay to feel uncomfortable in your own skin. Plenty is taught about the physical changes of puberty but the emotional aspects are simply glanced over. Then they are suddenly bombarded with advertising telling them that there is something wrong with them. They are too fat, too thin, nose too big, too small....and it's shoved down their throat. Both sexes have to deal with it now. Add in an uneasy relationship with a parent, guardian, peer or sibling (sometimes all of the above) and there should be no surprise when the result is depression.

The facts are these......mental health problems will affect one in four young people during adolescence. The real statistic may be even higher as this is based on known instances. Seventy-five percent of young people will NOT seek help for their depression. Depression is the leading cause of disability among 15 to 25 year olds in Australia, far ahead of road traffic accidents.

So, what is depression? The following is a depression checklist, taken from Beyond Blue that will indicate whether a young person is depressed, or just having a bad day.

Have you, for more than TWO WEEKS:

1. Felt sad, down, miserable most of the time?
2. Lost interest or pleasure in most of your usual activities?

If you answered 'YES' to either of these questions, continue through the list. If you answered 'NO' to both questions it is unlikely that you have a depressive illness.

3. Lost or gained a lot of weight? OR Lost or gained appetite?
4. Sleep disturbance?
5. Felt slowed down, restless or excessively busy?
6. Felt tired or had no energy?
7. Felt worthless? OR Felt excessively guilty? OR Felt guilty about thing you should not be feeling guilty about?
8. Had poor concentration? OR Had difficulty thinking? OR Were very indecisive?
9. Had recurrent thoughts of death?

Add up the ticks for your total score.

Assuming you answered 'YES' to questions 1 or 2; 4 or less ticks means you are unlikely to have a depressive illness, 5 or more means you are likely to have a depressive illness.

Please note that this is not a diagnosis. You will need to see a professional for that, it is simply an indication that you, or the person you are thinking of, needs to consult help.

So, lets say you ticked all the boxes and you are worried you may need further help. How do you do it? Go to your GP. Ask for a long appointment during a quiet time of day so that you can have adequate time to discuss your concerns. If you find that you are not comfortable with the GP you have met with and did not feel that they were helpful to you, find another one. There is no harm in shopping around as depression is not a quick fix illness and you may need further visits to re-negotiate a plan.

Once you have found a good doctor create a plan with their help. They will recommend several specialists for you. They may be psychologists or psychiatrists and either will be able to help in the process of recovery. Again, it's important to find one you are comfortable with and the recommendation is two visits before you decide if that particular person suits your needs. Often the first visit is quite nerve wracking and any decision made after the initial visit may be premature.

Family and close friends can help with recovery but again, the specialist is the best person to advise on how that may be best applied. It has not been proven that anti-depressives are effective for young people when treating depression and it is best to avoid them if possible. The best course of treatment is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and all Psychiatrists and Psychologists are trained in this method. Essentially, it is the process of learning how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, basically a think positive approach. It's a learned behaviour though and requires planning and teaching so it's unfortunately not as simple as saying to yourself "Think positively and stop worrying so much".

I hope that the information I have given is helpful to all those who asked the questions. This is an issue which I believe needs more of a spotlight put on it and less negativity associated with it in order for statistics to change. My earlier thoughts on possible causes for the spike in depression and suicide in our youth may not be the whole picture and they may not be studied fact but they are based on what I learned about depression and the early stages of this illness so I believe they do have merit. That part will be up to you to judge however, and I am sure you will.


  1. Wow Leigh!
    What a remarkable and honest post:) Thank you for saying what many have been feeling. It is true we live in a time of heightened fear, not just from strangers but from nature and the universe. We need to reclaim our lives back again and live with commonsense and freedom. I am not saying do not consider danger just do not always presume the worst.
    Thank you, I look forward to the replies you receive.

  2. Leigh ...send that to the national papers ...please

  3. Your piece is so well written Leigh ... your blog is very empowering for anyone with a troubled youth. Being sensitive to their situations, active listening, talking and compassion go a long way to helping prevent suicide. I agree with Kris ... send this through for a larger audience ..

  4. Todays kids are subjected to far more negative influences than perhaps we were. The accessibility of violence and pornography on television, DVDs and the internet, the ranting abuse of individuals by "shock jocks" on radio and in newspapers, just for a start. What messages are constantly being sent out to kids by the likes of say John Mackenzie and Gavin King with their relentless jeering and mockery of the current Mayor of Cairns for example?

  5. Teenage years in particular are all about conformity, being "the same" as everyone else. Speaking the same, having the same interests, wearing the same clothes etc. It can be brutal if you are "different". Teenagers make the very best fascists of all. The thing is for teenagers who are different, to hang in there, and learn to cope. Adults tend to be more tolerant of differences.