Did you know that the third highest killer of teens in Indiana is suicide? That’s a pretty scary number. It is to me at least. Even more terrifying is the recent data showing that suicide deaths for ages 10-14 has multiplied and rocketed to the number one cause of death in that age group. TEN to FOURTEEN. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs, they have been light hearted, but I am and always will be at the core of my being a speech language pathologist. While I specialize in Deaf and Hard of Hearing, I am also trained in executive function, emotional disorders, autism, and special learning disabilities. I could hardly have a blog page without a category related to education. Children are my passion and this world’s lack of concern for them at the decision making levels is pitiful. I chose to start with emotional disorders because, quite frankly, this “suck it up buttercup” attitude is killing our children. I am to the point that I believe strongly all individuals who directly interact with or make decisions for teenagers should be educated on the topic and prosecuted if they ignore clear signs. Yes, that is pretty strong.
“Emotional disorders” is a pretty widespread term that covers a spectrum of issues. While this blog post is focusing on teens and to some degree children, adults most certainly do experience mental health issues. This is the invisible illness, lurking in the dark shadows of society with a stigma so deep that we still walk with the institutional burden that plagued us until recently. Honestly one out of every five teenagers has a mental illness. I guarantee you regularly interact with a student that is struggling and I hope by reading and sharing this blog we can instill some compassion and love.
Mental illness is a mysterious combination of genetics and neurochemicals and environment; far too complex to point a finger at a situation or a person. There really is no “get over it” or “drama queen!” or “it will all get better” dismissiveness that is the least bit helpful. Not to the student or the family. Given the end result may be suicide, this is not a game. Anyone who has experienced this with family can attest, it is scary and sad and hard. They do not need to be judged. Nor do they need selfish idiots thinking it’s all about them. Honestly, I believe that part of the problem is the stigma of mental illness encourages people to not talk about it. I feel that if I share my story, it might help someone else start their journey. It’s time to stop hiding in the shadows and embrace a person’s inner soul. It only takes one, just one time, for you to be working quietly in your office and you to learn a former student has killed themself to be shocked into awareness. If you are an eye rolling person that disagrees, come back to me when you have had my same experience, then we can talk.
Mental illness or Emotional Disorders can include:
- Anxiety Disorders
- Psychotic Disorders
- Personality Disorders
- Eating Disorders
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder
- Conduct Disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I don’t intend on discussing or taking on most of these issues in this blog. But I will stop here for a minute and implore you that these individuals may not “look sick” to be sick. These issues are very real and compassion and understanding is what is needed for them and their families. If someone in your circle does have one of these diagnoses, please care enough to educate yourself on the specific issue so that you will not be hurtful to the situation and may have a chance of being helpful.
I want to park a bit on the most likely issues you will face: depression and social anxiety. Some signs of depression can include:
- Decrease in enjoyment and time spent with family and friends
- Significant decrease in school performance
- Problems with attention or concentration
- Changes in energy level, eating and sleeping
- Stomach aches, headaches, etc.
- Feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, crying often, sadness
- Poor self-esteem; self-deprecating comments
- Lashing out, aggression, disobedience
Students with depression will often put on a good face out in public so you would need to watch for the more subtle signs of removing themselves away from a group or general sadness. Be careful and LISTEN! Often individuals with depression will say something to people they trust. If they are knocked down, it just makes it harder to trust the next person. I have WATCHED WITH MY OWN EYES as a teacher of my son, who struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, turned to him and said, “psshhh, Jon! Drama!” when I shared his struggles. That was the absolute opposite of what should have happened and when you are a professional educated in emotional disorders, you want to smack that adult for their idiocy. Do you think my son ever wanted to walk in her class again? I’ll answer that for you. No. But he had to, and I had to damage my delicate relationship with him, which was already on the rocks because of the depression, to get him to go. You likely know what student’s parents just got divorced, had a death of a close family member, or some other significant occurrence. These traumatic events impact adults greatly; it is much truer for teens that do not yet have a fully developed frontal lobe to deal with crisis and stress. You could be a hug, a gentle back rub, or a kind word that is much needed in the life of that child right now.
Students with anxiety have similar struggles to those with depression. One percent of teens struggle with anxiety. That may not sound like much, but that percentage makes it likely that you might cross paths with a struggling teen. After working with elementary students most of my professional days, I think that percentage must be higher. Anxiety can be crippling, causing sufferers to not be able to function, or it can be more subtle, resulting in an inability to focus on and complete work. Social anxiety can cause a middle school student to fake illness to avoid situations. These individuals are struggling to learn to cope with stress.
If a tragic event makes it in the news, you will likely see in the news report somewhere occurrences of bullying. Statistics demonstrate that bullying is not going away, even with education programs. With the advent of Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media sites that allow students to feel the ability to assert power over others without consequences and often anonymity, cyberbullying is a very real problem and it is having a negative impact on our already fragile teens.
What can the reader of this blog do to help a teen they may suspect has mental problems? First and foremost, care. Opening your heart and expanding empathy will do a great deal. Next, listen. The teens who are struggling are in a world where they feel like no one is listening. Keep a smile on your face and eyes wide open for any warning signs of suicidal ideation. It is better to report and follow up than ignore. Always be positive and encourage, but be careful not to be dismissive. Third, educate yourself on what the teen you interact with may be facing. More education will only help you help them. Finally, don’t forget the parents. They are struggling too. Depression often has a genetic factor, so one or more parents may even be facing mental health issues of their own while dealing with their child. Never tell a parent that they are making up their child’s issues for attention and manipulation. Yes, I have been told that, in print no less. If the parent is revealing that very painful, very hard part of their life to you, it means they must have some respect for you and think you can help them. When you accuse or minimize you have broken their hearts and added additional burden on to this already struggling family.
I can tell you as a mother; it was the hardest thing to hear my son threaten his own life. It scared me. I am lucky to have strong family, friends and dance Mom friends that I turned to for an immediate prayer chain. It hurts to see him bullied and have me be the only one who stands up against it. I knew that recent family trauma had impacted him greatly and that he was bullied for being a dancer. I also knew as a young man that was born dead, AP classes required him to work harder for a C or B than his siblings and peers who studied very little and did better in school. In him I saw the world, so much potential, such beauty on the dance floor and every time I tried to share his struggles with an educator to get some help and compassion, I was poo pooed. That, I have learned is an all too common experience for parents with teens who have emotional struggles and/or behavioral difficulties. We are labeled as attention seekers, bad parents or the cause of all the problems and walked away from. I can say without a doubt that I don’t want to lose my son, nor do I want to lose any child I know.
This website is very helpful, but I felt a need to copy and paste their words to my blog. Here is the original author, please check out this site: (please note the italics are not my written work but from the website)
- “Your support and understanding are everything to me. I am in awe of the lengths you have gone to to try and get answers. And even when those answers didn’t come you still haven’t given up on me, even when I want to give up on myself!
- “I would tell my parents (and have told them) that even though I have an illness, I still love them. They didn’t do this to me, and it wasn’t their fault. There’s probably nothing they could have don’t to have prevented it. Nature made me who I am biologically… but they made me the wonderful and caring human being that I am, as well.”
- “Sometimes, I just feel crap. I don’t always have a explanation as to why so when you ask me, I cannot always answer. I know you want to help, but, as hard as it may be, you sometimes just have to sit back. I will get through this. I don’t know how and I don’t know when… but one day I will.”
- “I want them to know how thankful I am for their support. It took them a while to get to that place, but I’m grateful. They took me to many appointments and paid for so many medications.”
- “I know that you feel like you should be able to help somehow, but it isn’t up to you — medication and therapy in addition to your unconditional love and support is the best thing for me.”
- “I’m not doing this on purpose. This isn’t some attempt at rebellion, or a guilt trip or me trying to punish you. This is part of me, and it’s harder to deal with than you realize.”
- “Thank you for being there for me even though it took some time to digest my illness. I appreciate all the kindness and love when I was in my darkest days. You pulled me though more than you’ll ever know.”
- I do not blame you for any of the problems we had when we were trying to navigate our way through my diagnoses. You guys learned all you could in a time before the Internet had the answers and before self-helps books were readily available. You were not bad parents just because you could not fix what was going on in me. You got me help, again, and again, and again and it’s OK it took more than one try to find the right person to help me because along the way I had two people who didn’t give up.”
- “It’s not a parent’s job to fix their child (there are doctors for that). It’s a parent’s job to love, support and encourage their child so they feel a little less broken and alone.
- “Don’t be ashamed of me. I do the best I can. It has just gotten harder getting older.”
- “I need someone to reassure me. I have so many doubts. I feel worthless. I feel depressed, despaired, numb. Please don’t tell me I’m not doing anything with my life. I need someone to be there for me. I need someone to tell me I’m doing everything I can to heal. I’m doing everything I can to recover. Please tell me you’re proud of me.”
- “It’s real and it is exhausting. I wish I could be more open with you, but you can’t understand.”
- “I know you feel helpless. I understand your feelings. But there are a lot of things you can help me with and be supportive. Sometimes practical things like going shopping for or with me can be great. Sometimes I just need someone to talk to. Or I need someone to hug me. Or I need someone to tell me that everything is going to be OK. You being supportive is really really important to me.
- “Thank you for putting up with my roller coaster. Know that I loved you very, very much, even at my worst moments.”
- “You did not do anything wrong in raising me, Mom. And I will overcome this illness and be a productive member of society again one day. I just need time to let my body and soul heal. I love you more than you know for your love and support.”
- “I love you and appreciate all that you have supported me through. Just please continue to do so, but don’t freak out if I tell you I’m going through a rough patch. When you worry about me so much, I get even more anxious and upset.”
- “I was diagnosed as an adult. My mom was wracked with guilt. I did tell her, yes, this has been a part of me all my life. This anxiety was why I never had friends, got into trouble or went to dances like others did. No, it was not your fault. None of this is the fault of anything. It simply is what and who I am. Laying blame would be easy but wouldn’t help me one bit. The truth is that this is simply my obstacle in life, nothing more. If anything, by never pushing me, by not asking me to do the things I avoided but were ‘normal,’ you helped me immeasurably by allowing me to figure out my own ways of coping. Thank you for that. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen my mom cry, but it was the first time is seen her smile while doing it.”
- “Mom and Dad, I wish you would’ve taken this seriously and got me the help I asked for. You’re my family, and I can’t count on you.”
- “The most important thing you can do for me is to be supportive of the treatment plan I have chosen. Even though I still have bad days, it does not mean I’m going to give up. I appreciate you and your wisdom, but I also have to find my way.”
- “I don’t always have control over my emotions or reactions. I try my best to stay in control, but it’s hard to constantly fight a battle I feel like I’m losing.”
- “Mom and Dad, thank you so much for all you have done, for all you will do and for the love you have given me. You care for me in many ways — ways that allow me to still have an active life. I wish there was a way you didn’t have to help me financially. I am grateful for all you do, but most of all I’m grateful for the love you give me every day!”
- “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.”
We have to open our hearts to others. Love unconditionally and see them for who they truly are, not who we judge they should be. Our world is dying, dying slowly of hate and negativity. Understanding others will open eyes and help you become a better person. Positive energy and love is what individuals with mental health need. If you become a loving trustworthy person who is not focused inward but looking outward, I think you shall see more deeply.
Educators and my fellow Speech Language Pathologists- you are in the unique position of being a trusted confidant. If you work in the schools in Indiana, you have been trained as it’s required. I have had students share some of the deepest, hardest part of their life with me. I implore you to understand that you are viewed as a safe place. Please act accordingly.
If you find yourself with a child who wants to kill themselves, do not leave them alone. Contact the suicide hotline for help. It is far better to have a child or parent upset with you than to lose a life. Don’t promise a teen you will keep a secret, be sure they know that you will respect them, but you can’t promise not to tell if someone’s life is at stake. Teach your own teens to recognize the signs, stand up against bullying, and fill this world with compassion. I can tell you, given the statistics, you do know children who are depressed, you do know children who are bullied, you do know children who have anxiety, you know some with post-traumatic stress due to emotional, physical and sexual abuse, you know someone hurting. See them. Really see them.
If this information has hit a cord, learn more online. The Indiana Department of Education requires teachers to get this information so they have several free training sits available.
We can work together and we can save our children. We just need to band together to do it and more deeply than we thought possible.