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High Country depression unique?

Matt Zalaznick

A group of teens assembled by the Eagle River Youth Coalition, thanks to a $500 grant from the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, is now investigating the disturbing results of the 2001 Eagle CARES survey. The teens will interview friends and other students in hopes of discovering if troubles unique to the mountains are driving more young people to depression and thoughts of suicide, says Beth Reilly, director of the Eagle River Youth Coalition.

“Some things are known about suicide and depression, but there are some things that could be unique to our area,” Reilly says.

“Hunches and hypotheses’

Holly Woods, a local Ph.D. researcher who has studied youth smoking in the past, is heading the teen depression study. She has recruited and trained a group of female high school students to do the interviews. Currently, the group only has “hunches and hypotheses” about why more valley teens appear to be grappling with depression, Woods says.

“Some of the girls think it might have to do with the type of community we live in. The wealth and luxury teens see may be causing feelings of inferiority or of an inability to have that kind of lifestyle,” Woods says. “They feel sort of like this wealthy economy has a sense of judgment associated with it – if you’re not among the elite, you’re inferior.”

The valley, though growing, is in many ways still a small town, and that may make some teens feel like they’re being judged from all sides, Woods say.

“Everybody knows everybody; everybody knows everything,” Woods says. “It creates a sense of needing to be perfect, or else you’re not good enough.”

Still, other teens feel more keenly the great disparities of wealth that exist among families in the valley. These economic divisions create social barriers that some kids feel are impenetrable, Woods said.

“We are socially segmented as a society here,” Woods says. “There are fewer overlaps in our culture in the Vail Valley than there are in most communities. This limits a person’s ability to move within a culture and discover who they are.

“I can see how hard that might be for an adolescent,” she adds.

Lack of support

The interviewers also have suggested some teens, whether their families are wealthy or struggling financially, feel like they don’t get enough support from their parents.

“Among wealthy families, the parents weren’t necessarily there for the kids all the time; the kids often had nannies,” Woods says. “And on other end, there are parents who are working two or three jobs to make ends meet and are never home.”

There is some suspicion that depression and thoughts of suicide begin as early as middle school, Woods says.

Some who work with teens say they have added concerns for young men because they are more likely not to seek help from friends, family or therapists. Compounding the problem is teens who are clinically depressed don’t necessarily understand they’re suffering from a serious disease.

Adolescents and teens suffering clinical depression can exhibit 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.

Therapists agree that healthy teens can exhibit such behaviors. But parents should be concerned if their children show any of the above symptoms for two weeks or more, therapists say.

Social stigma

The stigmatization of depression as a character flaw rather than a medical condition also prevents teens – and adults – from seeking help, 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.”

The goal of the current study is to create multi-faceted suicide prevention strategies in schools and the surrounding valley neighborhoods. Reilly says she’s grateful for the grant from the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, part of the Gill Foundation, a private philanthropic organization based in Colorado Springs that has provided more than $7 million to community programs statewide.

“Anytime a young person talks about suicide, you need to take it seriously and get those kids some help,” Reilly says. “Because, from my perspective, I don’t know what’s talk and what’s real. Every time, you have to take it seriously.”

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


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