Depression is a real disease, and no, they can’t just cheer up

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Depression is a real disease, and no, they can’t just cheer up

BP drawing by Katie Feld

BP drawing by Katie Feld

BP drawing by Katie Feld

Colleen Bazak, Features Editor, and Hannah-Leeba Ellenhorn, Lifestyles Editor

On any given day, about one third of Shalhevet students regard themselves as feeling depressed — or so they say. On two separate days this year, one in fall semester and one in spring, Shalhevet students were asked, “Are you depressed today?”

During the fall poll, 30 percent of students replied yes, and in spring, 36 percent did.

What students describe as a depressed mood during a casual hallway conversation may be an accurate description of how they’re feeling at the moment, but the actual condition of depression has more serious and longer lasting implications.

Experts agree that the pressure of high school combined with the natural hormonal fluctuations and daily dramas of teenage life make a recipe for a really complicated period. Depression — or something that feels like depression — is therefore not an unexpected condition for teens. In fact, most teenagers will at some point feel depressed.

But according to a CBS News report, at any given time, about six percent of American teenagers have the actual illness of clinical depression.

That has included several Shalhevet students over the years, one of whom was willing to talk about the experience – anonymously – with the Boiling Point.

“The big difference between depression and being sad is that depression is not something that can be controlled as easily,” the student said. “People ask me why can’t I just think happy thoughts, but I can’t just turn it off.

“When I am in a depressive phase, tired and lethargic is the best way to describe it. I don’t want

to get out of bed and I don’t feel the motivation. I just feel like ‘What’s the point?’”

Shalhevet school counselor Rachel Hecht said it generally takes a mental health professional — a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist — to determine whether or not a teen is clinically depressed.

“The word ‘depression’ seems to be thrown around a lot amongst teenagers, and that concerns me,” Mrs. Hecht said. “Don’t self-diagnose. Always talk to a trsuted adult — don’t try to do it alone.”

Clinicians carefully assess teenagers on a case-by-case basis because it is difficult to separate clinical depression from normal teenage behavior.

“Sometimes you see a student and they’re just struggling and having a hard time and really just need to work through that,” Mrs. Hecht said.

“If something is interfering with your daily routine and interfering with your life,” Mrs. Hecht said, “if you are feeling exhausted, you have a lack of appetite and an inability to sleep, then I know I really need to assess the student further.”

Mrs. Hecht said day-to-day situations can often lead students to feeling depressed, but sometimes the depression is something more.

Situational depression is a less severe form of depression that usually is shorter lasting, and occurs when teens experience emotional volatility as a result of something that’s new. With time, the person adapts to the new situation, “the blues” dissipate and the teenager resumes normal routines.

But clinical depression is different.

Junior Erin Sharfman volunteers at Teenline, where she answers phone calls, emails, and text messages from teenagers who are depressed.

“The most common feeling that people express is hopelessness,” Erin said. “They think that things won’t get better. They feel alone in the process, and they think that everyone around them is happy, and no one knows what they are going through.”

Common signs of depression include anxiety, antisocial behavior and substance abuse, according to www.surgeongeneral.gov. Leah F. Stromberg, LCSW and aunt of Shalhevet junior Amiad Davis, said the first step to getting appropriate treatment is to see a physician and rule out the possibility that the symptoms are being caused by medications or conditions like a thyroid disorder.

But if depression is diagnosed, the patient may be prescribed anti-depressants. Usually the first tried are Prozac, Celexa, Zoloft, Paxil and Lexapro,(www.nimh.nih.gov) known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These medicines are believed to increase the levels of serotonin, a neuro-transmitter which controls many things including mood. It can take a while to adjust and readjust dosages to achieve the desired effect. (www.mayoclinic.com)

Since 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned that SSRIs can increase the risk of suicidal thinking in people ages 18 to 24, generally during the first one to two months of taking them. But even without medication, a depressed teen is five times more likely than any other teenager to commit suicide, according to healingfromdepression.com.

And according to the American Psychological Association, suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24 in the U.S.

The National Institute of Mental Health says psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” can also be effective. The NIMH  writes that a combination of medication and psychotherapy may be the best way to treat teen depression, while psychotherapy alone may treat mild to moderate depression.

But no two cases of depression are alike, and no two teens are either.

“Walking outside of my house helps,” the anonymous Shalhevet student said. “I also like really loud music, but that’s just me. Its different for everybody.”

Coping and living with depression can be challenging not only for the patient, but also for his or her family and friends. Some teens may feel ashamed to admit that they have been diagnosed with depression and try to isolate themselves from their peers.

But according to mayoclinic.org, isolation is the worst thing for one who has been diagnosed with depression.

The anonymous student with clinical depression agreed, saying that being around friends is good even if it  doesn’t change anything.

“Even if I am not feeling better because of what a friend is saying, it is still really nice to have someone there,” the student said. “Just being a friend helps. You can’t necessarily fix my feelings.”

AP psychology teacher Mrs. Tove Sunshine said teens who are depressed should avoid seclusion and instead hang out with upbeat people who will make them feel good about themselves.

But a friendship with someone who is depressed is not easy.

“Being friends with a depressed person can be very stressful and frustrating,” said another Shalhevet student who wished to be anonymous.

“It’s like everything revolves around the depression,” that student said. “Sometimes I wish they’d just snap out of it. It’s hard to just hang out and be carefree in the limited amount of free time we have.”

That is a normal reaction, according to Dr. Fiona Chalom, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and mother of freshman Moriah Chalom.

“Friends of depressed people feel frustrated when their efforts to make things better are futile,” said Dr. Chalom. “Furthermore, friends of depressed teens are also at higher risk of depression themselves.”

Families are also at risk when a teen is depressed. Esti K., who preferred not to use her real name, learned this when her son was diagnosed with clinical depression at 15. Mrs. K said living with depression becomes the new normal, and parents and siblings should work to make sure the diagnosis does not take over.

“Moms and dads will tend to feel guilty, as though they somehow caused depression to surface in their teen, while siblings may tend to feel neglected because all the parents’ energy is focused on getting their child well,” said Mrs. K.

Rachel Hecht suggests that a depressed friend may need diversion and company. At Shalhevet, it is sometimes the friends of a depressed student who will recommend that she meet with them. Shalhevet teachers also refer students.

“A lot of times the teachers will notice something is off about a student,” said Mrs. Hecht. “They will notice a difference in personality and will often tell me that the student is distracted in class and that they’re just worried and concerned.

“So far, the system is working out well,” she added. “The teachers are really in tune with their students.”

When students confide in Mrs. Hecht, she promises them that confidentiality will not be broken unless they are going to hurt themselves or someone else, she said, and students can chat about whatever it is that is bothering them, not necessarily just about depression.

“The high school experience isn’t just classes, it isn’t just the social aspect, it isn’t just family,” Mrs. Hecht said. “It’s everything intertwined.

“Often we’ll talk about it all. Sometimes students will come in with one issue and go on to talk about everything.”

Dr. Bassya Pinson, psychologist and supervisor at Aleinu family services, said that each patient needs to be treated on an individual basis.

“Often times it is a matter of identifying what is going on and finding ways to deal,” Dr. Pinson said. “When people are young teenagers in high school the brain is really in the process of developing itself. The weak part of the brain, until later teen years or adult years, is the connection between emotions and the part of the brain that help you gain control of emotions. So it’s hard sometimes to know how to handle it.”

Since teenagers often struggle with gaining control of their emotions, she helps those who come to her office deal with controlling their feelings.

“Because their minds are creative and flexible, when you give them a new way of handling emotions they use the tools to be more effective and take positive actions,” she said. “Teenagers are usually bright, flexible, creative, and just need to be listened to.”

For some of the Shalhevet students who answered ‘yes’ to whether they felt depressed on a given day, being listened to just might solve their problem.

“When anybody listens to you, it releases the stress that builds up,” sophomore Maya Ben-Shushan, who answered ‘yes’ to the poll, said. “If people listen and care, school and life will be more uplifting.”

This story won First Place in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association for Digital Media, In-depth News / Feature category.