Teenagers are notoriously moody and it’s fairly common for 13-19 year olds to retreat into their own lives, lashing out against parents and feeling down when things don’t seem to go their way. However, some teens aren’t just filled with angst – they may be clinically depressed.

Marlene Fraser* and her family learned first-hand how to distinguish the difference between moodiness and depression when their teenage son James* began to show signs that things weren’t quite right.

The Symptoms

“Our son was an honour roll student…from grade 7 – 9,” Sue explains. “Then, in grade 10, his marks started to slip. In grade 11 they slipped even further, but we thought it was due to the heavy academic work load he signed up for that year. Grade 12 showed some promise with his marks rising at the beginning of the year.  He was accepted to all the universities to which he applied, then by the end of the year, his marks slipped again and his acceptance to the University of his choice was rescinded.”

More than grades, James lost enthusiasm for working his part-time job and his keen interest in hockey, opting to stay home instead.

“I was unable to focus on my school work and had no drive to do it at all. My social life dwindled…I stopped contacting friends…I just felt that being alone was better for me and that all of them wanted me to be alone, too,” says James of this time.

“We as parents panicked after the university debacle…thinking we had to get him into a university, not ever thinking he may be struggling with a mental health issue,” says Marlene. “He was accepted to [a school out of town] and started off well in September.”

However, James soon again saw his grades slip and was quitting courses – all without his parents knowing. The reality of his state became apparent when he returned home from university that spring a “totally different young man.”

“He was sullen, didn’t talk, you could actually see or sense a huge black cloud over his head.  He slept and slept and slept and had a bad aroma to him even though he showered,” says Marlene. “He came home in April [and] by the first week of June, when we couldn’t seem to motivate him to find summer employment, I finally took him to our family doctor where he immediately diagnosed him with depression.”

Treatment and Coping

James’ diagnosis came with mixed feelings for the 19-year-old.

“I was upset. I felt like I shouldn’t be depressed; I have nothing to be depressed about,” says James. “I did feel the slightest bit of relief, though, because now at least I knew that it wasn’t just me.”

The options for treating teen depression are many, making the journey to recovery sometimes one filled with trial and error. For James, treatment meant initially going to counselling and eventually seeing a psychiatrist a couple of times as well. Both situations did not help as much as the medication he was prescribed, though.

“After getting the right dosage of medication, he has slowly started to become himself again,” Sue says. “Everything has been in baby-steps and painstakingly slow.”

James also finds comfort in the support of his family and making the effort to get out of the house to socialize – even when he finds it hard to.

“[My family] supported me as best they could and offered me nothing but love and support. They looked for anything that would help me,” reflects James. “I really appreciate it now. And although it feels so taxing to do anything, [I] just try to convince [my]self it’s worth it because it is. I always felt so much better when I was with my friends.”

For James’ family, coping with their son’s depression has not only been difficult for his sake, but also because of the social stigma that Sue sees as still coinciding with the topic of mental illness.

“A mental health issue cannot be fixed like a broken arm with a cast.  It takes time, understanding,” explains Sue. “It’s funny…how other parents don’t want to talk to you about your child’s depression – almost as though if they don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to their child…I have a few good friends who do ask how he’s doing, coping, etc. and that’s good enough for me.”

Getting around this taboo takes awareness, says Marlene, who believes that recent efforts in this area will help families, extended families, and their social circle work together better for the benefit of the teen who is suffering.

The Present

In the two years since James has been diagnosed, he is gradually getting back to a place where he wants to get out of the house and live life. Sue describes him as “happier”, waking up earlier than 3:00pm, when he used to rise, and wanting to go out and do things. James and his family are even starting to discuss school and work again.

“During [the depression’s] height, I felt like no one in the world liked me. Everyone was judging me at all times. I was always on the brink of anger or sadness and had no drive to do anything. I also felt useless to society, like I had nothing to offer anyone,” explains James. “As it lifts, I find that I feel more useful and people aren’t as judgmental. I feel more happy and energetic.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Marlene says. “But he’s moving forward, and that’s a good thing.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the interview subjects.

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