Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen March 27, 2003
Original Title: What society has wrought
One of the more difficult aspects of answering teen questions is the degree of angst and pain that spills from them. Although the majority of our teenage children progress through adolescence to become well-adjusted, productive adults, a substantial minority is desperate for help during life’s stressful events.
A recent annual Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry meeting supports this view. A U.S.-wide survey of 3,242 teens and young adults indicates one-third experience a bout of depression. Two-thirds of this group fail to seek professional help.
The survey indicates that 36.4 per cent of teens between 15 and 19 experience a bout of depressed mood lasting two weeks or longer, at least once in their lives. About seven per cent have symptoms that suggest a major depressive disorder. Depression is a major health risk to teens.
The incidence of teen suicide climbs. “Less than 20 per cent of teens will tell a doctor about their (depressive) symptoms,” reports Dr. Stephanie Riolo of the University of Michigan.
“Of those who tell, girls seek help more often than boys do.”
This is similar to my experience at Canterbury High School clinics. Many teens are reticent and intimidated from seeking medical attention; they fear their family doctor will breach confidentiality and inform their parents. Some seek solace from friends or acquaintances, only to find the support underwhelming or ineffective.
The teen years are a time for personal growth and development. Adolescents develop different areas of interests, life and educational goals, and a sense of self through the three stages of adolescence. Although dating and social interactions are an important element of adolescent development, for some it becomes an all-consuming process. They can become stuck in a particular stage of development.
Drug use poses a similar threat. One observation made by the guidance counsellors and our medical centre at Canterbury is that many teens become trapped within destructive relationships. Friends and family are forgotten.
Some lose themselves in the relationship; their moods and actions are influenced by the actions of their partner. The dynamics of their relationship change if they become sexually active. There is the anxiety of infidelity, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and the consequences of any of these concerns.
There are many reasons why this occurs: parental strife, divorce, laissez-faire approaches to discipline, lack of parental involvement and support, lax enforcement of the rules of the house, poor sense of self and depressive illness among others. Sometimes, there’s no apparent explanation.
This is not an indictment of parents but based on direct observation and interviews with the students.
Here, the students have their say:
“What do you do when you get so upset that you think people would be better off without you?”
“If my boyfriend has slept with another girl before, is it best to have him tested? And why?”
“If I had a friend who I thought was being abused by her father, should I come to you or what should I do?”
“A friend of mine is really depressed. And, he wants to die although he said he could never go through with it. He says that he can’t live like this any more, and that he won’t tell anyone until OAC, when he won’t see any of us again. I hate to see him like this. How can I persuade him to get help?”
“Depression and suicide run in my family. I’ve heard that it can be caused by a chemical imbalance and is curable. Is that true?”
“A close friend of mine has had a hard life. She’s been anorexic and bulimic for eight years now. She’s 5-foot-2 and 75 pounds. I’ve tried to get her help but they say she’s not ready for a program yet. I’m really worried about her.”
“I have a lot of problems and things going on in my life and I don’t feel like I have anyone to talk to. I’m worried that my problems are going to start taking control of my life and I don’t know where to turn. How do I get help and who do I go to?”
“I used to trust everyone but within the past two years three guys (who I was serious about) cheated on me and friends have betrayed me. Now I can’t trust anyone at all. Even friends I’ve known since I was a baby. How can I get over this trust issue and trust again?”
“Is there such a thing as a social anxiety disorder — when you are so wrapped up in what other people think of you, you don’t enjoy your friends or whatever.”
“I have a friend who is a frequent self-mutilator. I’m afraid her cuts will get infected. I’m not worried about suicide because she only cuts her legs but I’d like to know what is the risk factor of infection. She uses razors mostly but scissors sometimes. What can I do?”
“I started having sex a year ago when I was 15, and my vagina was very tight. My boyfriend could not reach full penetration, and once I blacked out. Why is this and what can help?”
“For years, my dad’s girlfriend hated me. She used to insult me and tell me my real mother hated me. She tried to run me over with her car. I told myself I didn’t care but I guess I really did. This I guess went on for four or five years and I’ve never talked about it. My new stepmother says that because I was older (11+), it didn’t affect me, but it does.”
“I’m very shy and am always trying to make people happy. I want to talk to someone but I’m afraid. I find that I get excessively angry and violent at times. When I feel this way, I feel like hurting or destroying someone or something. Is there something wrong with me?”
One is struck by the concreteness of some sexuality questions. There is little emphasis on the appropriateness of the activities described. Should our children have to worry about these issues? How can we prevent this behaviour?
Many teens are adrift, lacking direction and focus. Once they find someone they trust, they tend to stick with them. Trust provides the ability to influence a teen’s life. The goal is to minimize and if possible eliminate behaviours that are inherently self-destructive.