There’s something in the blog world called “monster posts”, and this is going to be one. But this post on depression may be one of the most important posts I ever write, and it’s time. My daughter’s high school reeled from two suicides this year, and I pray there won’t be more. It’s shocking, and devastating, and confusing, and a lot to deal with for adults, let alone for teenagers.
We have to face the reality that a lot of our teenagers are struggling with things they aren’t really equipped to handle. I’m amazed at how many of my friends have told me their teens deal with depression and/or anxiety. It’s epidemic. And it’s real.
I need to say up front that this post is neither universal nor comprehensive. (And I’m not a licensed professional.) Depression is complicated and has a lot of expressions. I just want to take you inside my own. Even though it is different for different people, I can relate to other people better just having been there. So I’m hoping that reading this will help you with anyone struggling with it.
Our Teens Are Overwhelmed and Underequipped
Moms and dads, we have to face the reality that a lot of our teenagers are struggling with things they aren’t really equipped to handle. I’m amazed at how many of my friends with teenagers have told me their kids deal with depression and/or anxiety. It’s epidemic. And it’s real. This post is not about that problem and why it’s happening or what we can do to prevent it. This post is about my own experiences with depression, so you’ll have a better idea of what it’s like to be clinically depressed, and what you need when you’re there. If you haven’t been in it yourself, you can sort of imagine what it might be like, but I want to help you get down inside it deeper.
More Than Being Sad or in a Bad Mood–Way More
When you’re depressed, you don’t always know why. And you don’t feel like it’s going to get better. You may know in your head that it’s going to get better…but you don’t feel it.
Depression is not just being sad or in a bad mood all the time. When you’re sad about something, you know it’s not going to last forever. You are aware that you’re sad and waiting for time or something else to make you feel better again. And you know you will.
Not a Bad Mood
When you’re in a bad mood, you know you’re in a bad mood, and you usually know why. When you’re depressed, you don’t always know why. And you don’t feel like it’s going to get better. You may even know in your head that it’s going to get better…but you don’t feel it. It just feels like this is how it is, and will always be. You either try to act the way you’re supposed to act, or you just act the way you feel and stop caring how it affects other people around you. It’s extremely powerless and hopeless.
Depending on the personality of your kid, it may not even look like sadness or a bad mood, at least for a while.
Not Even Angst
If you’re wondering how to tell depression apart from teen angst, you’re asking a good question. The answer is that it’s very, very difficult. My advice is to stay close, watch to see if it worsens or other changes come with it. If you’ve been able to stay emotionally close to your teen all along, you’ll have an easier time discerning. But this is definitely something that muddies the waters. That said, there’s something to be said for drilling down on the angst. It’s not a comfortable, peaceful way to be, and your teen needs you to be sensitive and available even if it’s “just” angst.
Depression in Extroverts
Let’s talk about extroverts. Kids who are outgoing are sometimes better at maintaining their public face. They know what it feels like to be “on”, so they may be able to keep it up longer. Achievers and go-getters probably feel like whatever is going on with them, they should be able to handle it and fix it. Chances are, they’ve done just that with other difficult situations, but they don’t realize that a clinical depression is setting in. That’s a different dragon to slay. Believe me, it takes some experience, maturity, and acute self-awareness to get to the point where you recognize exactly what’s happening, especially in the early stages. Teenagers aren’t going to be there yet.
Depression in Introverts
Now, introverts. An introverted kid is already quiet and keeping to himself. That can make it harder to see it setting in. This is a kid who’s already comfortable keeping some distance between himself and other kids or even family. So, that kid can slip further down without anyone, including the kid, realizing anything is wrong.
Here’s a page out of my own book. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more introverted. I’m very comfortable with people, even in front of groups. I’m not shy. But I love being alone, and my default is not to look for chances to be in big groups of people. So, I’m going to admit something hard. I know it’s sick, and I’m not proud of it, but you should know it if you have an introverted kid dealing with depression. Now that I’ve been out of the woods for several years, there are times I catch myself missing the solitude of the depression. Yikes. That’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
Seeing the World Through Gray-Colored Glasses
Another trick of depression is that it makes you think you see things clearly, when you don’t. At all. You think you are seeing things as they are, and you think your thoughts and perceptions are 100% accurate. But they’re not. Now, how on earth do you tell someone their reality is off when they don’t see it that way? It’s hard, but you have to know that’s what’s going on. You have to be gentle, patient, and not take on big picture stuff. As I slowly came out of it, and the clouds started to part a little more and a little more, I could look back and see how mistaken I was in my thinking. But nobody could have just told me in a way that I would accept it.
I can’t emphasize enough how important a good counselor is. The earlier, the better.
That wrong thinking can take a million different forms, and I was never suicidal, but I’m sure this is where it originates. For me, my wrong thinking came in the form of very angry thoughts, assigning false motivations and feelings to other people. I misinterpreted other people and myself, all the while convinced I was right. And the way I was seeing things only made the depression worse. This is where a skilled counselor is a real, no-kidding hero. I didn’t even realize I was angry until my counselor helped me see it. That was a surprise; I’ve never been an angry person. So, I really didn’t know what was going on. What it is for your kid could be anything, and it could be something you don’t even suspect. I can’t emphasize enough how important a good counselor is. The earlier, the better.
Guilt Likes to Stir the Pot
Here’s another trick of depression: guilt. If you are living a pretty good life, and you’re depressed, you feel guilty. My first bout of depression was during my second pregnancy. I had never heard of antepartum depression, so I didn’t know what was going on. But I remember thinking, “What’s the problem, Jennifer? Is it the loving husband, or the adorable toddler? Is it the nice house you live in, or the great neighborhood? Is it all your family and friends who love you? Or is it that all your needs are met? You’ve got nothing to be sad about, so what’s wrong with you? You’re terrible.” That’s a nice, nurturing voice, isn’t it? How’d you like to live with that every day? But on the surface, it seemed logical, so I felt guilty. And when you feel guilty about something, you hide it and try to wish it away.
Who Cares? Not Me. Not anymore.
The further into the depression you get, the less interested you are in activities and relationships. (You probably know this from commercials for antidepressants.) Since those are the things that used to bring joy and fun to your life, losing interest in them only makes things worse. And you can’t just will yourself to have fun or take joy in something. It’s gone, and it feels like it’s going to be gone forever. Think about that for a minute. Imagine feeling like there’s nothing–nothing–you can enjoy or have fun doing. I used to scrapbook a LOT, and I was just about to get rid of all my stuff because it had been so long since I cared about it, I was ready to quit looking at it. Red flag.
Know this, though. If your kid is depressed and losing interest in family relationships, don’t let that hurt your feelings (I know, I know) or discourage you from trying to help. You may feel like you’ve lost your heart connection and your influence, but you really haven’t. And it’s still your job to take care of that kid, whether they love you back or not. So, stay in it.
What It Feels Like
Here are a couple metaphors to describe what it feels like when depression is tightening its grip on you. It feels like you’ve wandered into some woods, and the woods are gradually getting darker and denser. You can’t find the path again, and you don’t know which way is out or what lives in the woods. After a while, you forget you were trying to find your way out, and you stop caring what lives in the woods. You just lie down. You’re tired.
It also feels like you’re in the middle of the ocean and losing strength to tread water. You start to dip under the water a little at a time, until you can’t struggle anymore. You sink just under the surface of the water, and then you keep sinking. And stop struggling. And you’re alone in the middle of the ocean.
As an outsider, it’s easy to see that the person is not alone, and there is a path or a rescue boat. But that’s not what feels real.
Here Are Your Marching Orders
So, as a parent, what do you do? The best thing you can do if you think this may be happening to your kid is to step up and take charge. They may not want it, but what you do is reach into their depression and say, “That’s enough. I’m taking over, and here’s what we’re doing.” Before you do that, you need a plan, but it can be as simple as, “I’ve made an appointment for the two of us to meet with a counselor tomorrow, and then you’ll see that counselor once a week.” You don’t need a complicated, multi-level plan. Just a plan that starts moving your child back to health. You can tweak it as you go, but just go. When it was me, I didn’t really want to be in charge because I had no idea what to do and lacked the energy to do anything, anyway. Be the one to make it happen. Again, the sooner the better.
Why Being Christian Matters
A word for my fellow Christian parents. As believers, there’s a whole other framework for this problem. It’s easy for a depressed teenager to look around and think, “This is all there is, and this is all I am. It’s not much.” But as believers, we know that this is not all there is. There’s an eternal reality that makes our present feel less permanent, because it isn’t permanent. We have eternity in heaven to look forward to, no matter what things are like here and now.
And we know God is with us in very real, intimate ways. Nothing goes unnoticed, and He is an undending source of comfort and purpose. I thank God that He has given me opportunities to use my own bouts of depression (including a pretty serious one) to minister to others. I couldn’t see that then, and it wasn’t time yet. It was time to heal. And He gave me the strength to find a wonderful Christian counselor and to trust a doctor to prescribe me what I needed so that I could come out of it. I couldn’t do it on my own. I couldn’t.
As believers, there’s a whole other framework for this problem. It’s easy for a depressed teenager to look around and think, “This is all there is, and this is all I am. It’s not much.” But as believers, we know that this is not all there is.
So, that’s “this is all there is,” now I want to address “this is all I am.” Part of being a Christian is growing in understanding of your real identity. If your identity is about being a teenager, or an athlete, or a great student, or a hard worker, etc., then you’ll reach the end of that. And then what? But when you understand that your identity is in Christ, and that He’s always shaping you and growing you to be more like Him and carry out the work He has for you, season by season, you’ll never reach the end of that. And it’s a journey that matures you and teaches you to live outside yourself and find contentment and joy along the way. What a privilege.
Please Stop with the Bad “Christian” Advice
Let me say a word about mistakes well-meaning Christians make in dealing with the depression. Yes, God can heal anything. Yes, prayer is powerful and necessary. Yes, every difficulty is a test of faith. So, encourage, pray for, and minister to anyone you know who is depressed. But do not discourage them from seeking counseling (there are great biblical counselors if you look for them), and I’m begging you, do not scold, chastise, or judge in any way anyone considering taking or already taking medication. It’s wildly irresponsible on your part, and you’re making the problem worse, not better.
For me, taking medication made me better able to pursue complete healing through spiritual means, and I certainly couldn’t do it before.
Depression is real, and clinical depression is affected by brain chemistry that can be leveled out with medication. For a lot of people, they can’t seek God or see His hand or even want to heal until balance is restored. We are fallen people living in a fallen world, and help comes in many forms. Sometimes, it’s modern medicine. For me, taking medication made me better able to pursue complete healing through spiritual means, and I certainly couldn’t do it before. Medication is not like taking uppers that falsely elevate your mood. They address the physiological part of the problem when it’s there. Sometimes, the depression is purely situational, and meds may not be helpful. But if it’s clinical, consider the meds.
Even If Your Teen Isn’t Grappling with Depression…
Nobody can look out for teenagers like other teenagers, so let’s raise a generation of kids who look out for each other.
To wrap up, let me encourage you to talk to your kids about being aware of other kids around them. Whether your teenager is impacted by depression or not, someone around him probably is. Probably is. Even if it’s not a close friend, there’s someone in one of their classes or extracurriculars that needs someone to reach out. And that classmate is probably trying to stay invisible. Just a friendly word or brief conversation can make a big difference that day. Nobody can look out for teenagers like other teenagers, so let’s raise a generation of kids who look out for each other.
There’s so much more I could say, but I’d love to hear from you. What experiences have you had, whether they’re your own or someone close to you? Unfortunately, depression is so customized, it plays out in a lot of different ways. What would you add to the conversation?