Depressed teens often keep dangerously quiet |

Depressed teens often keep dangerously quiet

Matt Zalaznick

Keeping quiet can lead to self-destructive behavior and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts, the experts say. And while depression is brutal at any age or social stratum, they have added concerns for young men and teens because they are the mostly likely not to seek help from friends, family or therapists.

“The thing parents don’t realize is most of the time, teens express depression through hostility, anger and risk-taking behavior,” says Krista McClinton, a therapist with Colorado West Mental Health.

Compounding the problem is teens who are clinically depressed don’t necessarily understand they’re suffering from a serious disease, she says.

“They’re trying to cope with feelings they don’t know how to deal with. They just know they’re feeling this sense of bleakness, so they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol or dangerous behaviors,” McClinton says.

Clinical depression can be spotted in adolescents, teens and adults by a variety of warning signs:

– Withdrawal from friends and activities

– Lack of enthusiasm or motivation

– Anger

– Sadness

– Poor self-esteem

– Indecision

– Lack of concentration

– Restlessness

– Agitation

– Substance abuse

“Any one of these symptoms, on any given day, can be normal in a teen,” McClinton says. “But if it’s more consistent, if it lasts more than two weeks, then there may be a reason to be concerned.”

Troubles in the west

Colorado has one of the higher suicide rates in the U.S. In fact, the suicide rate in the West is higher than in the rest of the country. The suicide rate among adolescents and teens in Colorado is also higher than the national average.

An Eagle Care survey done in 2001 offers troubling statistics about youth depression in Eagle County, says Beth Reilly, director of the Eagle River Youth Coalition.

Of the young people surveyed:

– 30 percent said that in the past year they felt “bad” or “depressed” most days. The national average is 28 percent.

– 27 percent said they felt so depressed they considered suicide. The national average is 19 percent.

– 36 percent of girls surveyed said they felt so depressed they considered suicide. The national average is 25 percent.

– 9 percent of young people said they’d attempted suicide. The national average is 8 percent.

– 15 percent of girls said they’d attempted suicide. The national average is 11 percent.

“Compared to the national data, there is cause for concern,” Reilly says. “But the community, the school district and mental-health service providers are eager to address it. So I’m feeling pretty good that we have a great community and the resources that we can make a difference.”

But so far, experts are not sure why more young people in Eagle County report having suicidal thoughts, Reilly says.

“We don’t know exactly,” she says. “We really want to know what is it about Eagle County that’s making our data look so different. We’re asking more questions; we’re tyring to implement more research.”

Shame, stigma and sympathy

Kids, as well as adults, suffering from depression keep quiet, in part, because, in the West, the illness is viewed more as a character flaw than a medical condition, Reilly says.

Experts from the state’s Office of Suicide Prevention contend that, in other parts of the country, people more openly discuss mental illness, Reilly says.

“In California, you go out to lunch, you say, “Hi, I went to work out and then I went to my therapist.’ Here, it’s not a part of the conversation,” Reilly says. “We have a ways to go before it’s part of the conversation.”

A goal, she says, is for people to accept depression as a medical condition.

“If you have a broken arm,” she adds, “you go to a doctor. We want people to feel just as comfortable if they have symptoms of depression.”

Teens –particularly boys –by their very nature are likely to keep these hopeless feelings to themselves. But their illness is only worsened by friends who tell them to “snap out of it” and parents who lecture them, McClinton says.

“Depression is stigmatized in a negative way, and adolescents have a hard time articulating their feelings,” she says. “I think it’s important for parents, teachers and friends to recognize certain changes in behavior that lead up to depression and possible suicidal intent and to talk about it openly – instead of lecturing.

“The biggest thing with adolescents,” she adds, “is just to listen to them about how they feel.”

Deadly impulses

The suicide rate is highest for men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Experts believe that’s the case because men are less likely than women or girls to talk about their feelings, says Jolene Crook, director of Colorado West Mental Health.

“Typically, young men don’t have outlets that they feel comfortable going to. They have male pride and think they should be able to handle these problems on their own,” Crook says. “Women have a tendency to talk to other women about their problems.”

Disturbingly, men also tend to choose more effective methods of killing themselves, she says.

“When men choose a method of suicide, they’re more than likely to use guns,” she says.

On the other hand, teens tend to be more impulsive than adults –a trait that can lead to disaster when depression has been building up, McClinton says.

“Because they tend to be impulsive, they don’t tend to use crisis hotlines and emergency services as much as adults,” she says. “Most of the time, suicides in youths occur after one stressful event.”

Brighter outlook

It’s crucial parents and friends not feel daunted, embarrassed or hopeless if a teen is diagnosed with clinical depression, McClinton says.

“What people don’t realize is that all mental illnesses are very treatable, and it’s important for parents, family and friends to realize it’s not that the kid’s never going to get better, because they can get better,” she says.

And family support is as important –and can be as powerful – as medication and therapy, McClinton says.

“At Colorado West, during family therapy, we really try to involve the family as a whole, because they need to understand what’s going on,” McClinton says. “And it helps the client not to feel so targeted.”

Reilly and other mental health experts in the valley say one of their top priorities is to change the environment in Eagle County so people suffering mental illness feel more comfortable speaking out and seeking help.

“If the stigma decreases and folks get help, I think we can reduce the risk of suicide,” she says.

But that might have the opposite effect on survey results. While suicide attempts may drop, reports of a depression may increase because people will not longer be afraid to talk about it.

“As the stigma goes down, more people might feel comfortable saying they are depressed,” Reilly says. “But our goal is that there is not a stigma-attached depression.”

For more information on depression and therapy, call Colorado West Mental Health at 476-0930.

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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