When I was 17, I almost lost my fight with depression. One dismal summer day, I grabbed the sharpest kitchen knife I could find and spoke the words aloud that I thought to be true: “I want to die…there is just no point anymore…”
My 12-year-old sister had been an unwanted witness to this dramatic episode. She sought to intervene by pleading for me to hand over the knife. When I refused to obey, her child-like body lunged for it. After some time struggling, her persistence wearied me, leading me to surrender the knife. Then, I stood motionless, trying to wrap my head around what I had just done…
That was me ten years ago. And it isn’t easy to go back there, but I think it’s important to share this dark struggle. During the nine years I battled depression, countless counsellors, friends, church elders and self-help books tried to tell me several things in an effort to put me on the road to recovery, but they fell short.
My life was a constant cycle, which stemmed from an invisible struggle no one really understood. Having someone truly be able to relate to me would have made a real difference. So, I want to share my insights on how we might best reach and support young people dealing with depression.
Seek to Understand
The National Institute of Mental Health defines depression as a “common but serious mood disorder” with “severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think and handle daily activities.” Some of these symptoms may include a persistent, sad, anxious or “empty” mood, feelings of hopelessness, and decreased energy and fatigue. Depression significantly impacts brain chemistry, which is why people with depression cannot simply “cheer up.” Recognizing that depression is not a choice and coming from a place that offers empathy and love, instead of judgment, can encourage youth to be open and honest about their inner struggle.
Validate their Experience
According to the American Psychological Association, millennial youth experience higher levels of stress and have more difficulties managing it than any other generation. Today’s youth deal with many different challenges, from unrealistic academic, social, family, and work expectations to traumatic events, such as divorce, abuse, and death. Youth struggling with depression may show signs of withdrawal, irritation and anger.
However, making assumptions about youth’s behavioural changes can hinder their recovery, says Nicole Perryman, an adult, child and family therapist and clinical director of Aset Group Consulting and Counselling Services. “It really devaluates their own healing, so being able to validate their own experience by saying, ‘I get it. I’m sorry you went through that. Tell me what you need’ is more powerful.” Acknowledging their unique challenges and validating that those feelings come from real experiences can build bridges to reach youth in crisis.
Research has shown that those with a stronger sense of community are more likely to recover than those without. “With depression, people isolate themselves a lot and they always have this negative self-talk,” Perryman says. “But when they are in a safe place within a group, they are getting that validation and their feelings of isolation change.”
Churches can positively contribute to a youth’s well-being by opening their doors and hosting a forum (free of judgment) where they can express their ideas and receive counselling from professionals in the community. Offering community resources can be helpful in placing youth on the path to healing.
Join the Fight
According to a recent study published in Pediatrics, over 11% of American teenagers have experienced a major depressive episode (MDE), up from the approximately eight percent figure in 2004 & 2005 studies. While all groups increased in adolescent depressive episodes, teen girls jumped to a horrifying 17%. And according to PsychCentral, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people, ages 15 to 24.
In the film To Save A Life, a young man commits suicide, after his last-ditch efforts — visiting a local church youth group — to seek help were ignored. Although this film was not based on true events, I found this scene incredibly heart-breaking because it reminded me of my many failed attempts to seek help. Yet, thankfully, my life was saved.
From Pediatrics study, only between 30-50% of teens suffering with depression are receiving some form of treatment. However, up to 80% of depressed teens could be successfully treated if they accessed proper resources. Many youth silently struggle because they face barriers in finding resources or knowing where to turn for help.
That’s where we come in. Youth need to know that they are not alone in this fight, and they don’t have to struggle silently. We need to listen, give them a sense of community, direct them to proper resources, and demonstrate that their life is of great value and is worth fighting for.