Ask an Expert: How do I support my teen who is dealing with depression among her friends

Are we seeing a greater level of mental health issues in student populations? Is social media a contributing factor? Even if your child isn’t suffering herself how do you support her when she is dealing with issues of depression etc amongst her friendship group?

I believe that every generation has worried about the one coming up, and this generation of adults is no different. Additionally, every generation has their concerns and insecurities around body image, schoolwork, family life or their future. Again, this generation of young people are no different.

However, young people today face very high levels of expectation. The world is also intensely competitive and teenagers are facing many challenges much earlier. Too many believe they are failures or ‘losers’ at an early age.

Teens are also encouraged to engage in more adult behaviours, while at the same time sheltered from consequences for those behaviours ‘because they are young’. When young people are given inconsistent messages and are not expected to own their choices, they do not develop into resilient outward looking adults, they simply become more insecure.

Perhaps due to more frequent reporting, Kids Help Line, has seen a 200% increase in mental health calls since 1994. Depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorders and problems managing anger were major concerns for kids aged 10 to 14. For callers between 15 and 18, the major problems were depression, self-harming behaviours, suicidal thoughts and anxiety.

Is social media a contributing factor? Many teens are simply making typical teen-like decisions, except that with the seamless integration of the online-offline world many of their poor choices are now public and permanent.

The online space can be a wonderful place of support and socialization, but many teens tell me that they never get a time to just ‘switch off ‘ because technology is so constant. When they are being bullied by peers or visit self-harming sites for example, it exacerbates the problems and low moods that are already present.

My mantra is ‘don’t blame the tool, blame the behaviours’. But expecting that teens will always make good decisions in the online space, without adequate adult supervision, consistent boundaries and lots of discussion is simply setting them up to fail. It is like sending teens off to a pool party while never having taught them to swim.

In response to the third part of your question, depression has a big impact on a young person’s life. It can impair their ability to enjoy life, affect school performance and relationships with friends. But rather than being seen as an illness, depression is sometimes seen as a personal weakness or failure and this stops teens from seeking help.

If they notice that their friend’s symptoms last for more than a few weeks and have a significant effect on the young person’s day-to-day functioning, it is probably time to encourage their friend to seek help. It is important to remember that the earlier the intervention, the better the results. Mental health problems can be treated, so encouraging friends to talk to a parent, see the school counselor, a trusted teacher or get support from community-based services can make a big difference.

It is important that teens realise that by going with a friend to seek help is usually better than trying to solve it yourself. Let them know you take their concerns seriously and don’t promise to keep any threat to hurt themselves a secret. Some issues need adult intervention to make a real difference. Telling an adult is not harming your friend, it is helping them.

Collett Smart, Psychologist and Educator, familysmart.com.au


It is difficult to say with certainty whether we are in fact seeing more mental health issues or if, in fact, we have just become better at acknowledging and reporting these. Anecdotally though, my many client schools absolutely report an increase in anxiety, in particular amongst young people. In fact, 15% of people aged 16-24 are affected by an anxiety disorder.

I recently published a two part blog series on this which I think will prove helpful: High School, High Anxiety: How to support teens with anxiety disorders and a very brave guest post by the fabulous Jane Caro: Amazing Grace: One woman’s story of overcoming anxiety.

I often discuss and call on experts to discuss other mental health issues too. My blog, enlighteneducation.edublogs.org,  is a great free resource for information on all things related to “Girl World” and I have specific posts addressing eating disorders, depression, self-harm, cyber self-harm (a relatively new and deeply troubling phenomena) and suicide.

My book, The Butterfly Effect – a positive new approach to raising happy, confident teen girls, also contains an entire chapter on Girls In Crisis. In it I offer the following explanation as to why some girls do indeed seem to be filled with rage and despair:

“While each girl’s situation at home, school, with friends and in the community influences her life in a unique way, there are underlying factors in our culture that are putting more teenage girls at risk than ever before. Respected therapist and author Martha B. Straus describes it best when she says girls ‘are in a crisis of rage and despair’. I believe that understanding and acknowledging this rage and despair are the first steps towards healing this generation of teen girls.

“Being part of society means meeting certain expectations; around adolescence girls begin to be more fully aware of the pressure to fulfil these expectations, which were mapped out before they were even born. Girls learn they will be rewarded with praise and acceptance if they fit into an ideal: they should be feminine girls, on the way to becoming feminine women. For teenage girls just beginning to become independent and to master their talents, the feminine ideal can seem frustratingly narrow: pretty, thin, attractive, friendly, agreeable, selfless, nurturing and soft-hearted. There is nothing wrong with these qualities. But a problem arises when adolescent girls feel pressured to act this way to the exclusion of other, more ‘masculine’ qualities in themselves, such as assertiveness, leadership, courage, physical strength, competitiveness, ambition and clear-headedness. Girls can hardly miss the messages from the people around them, school and popular culture about what it takes to be an ideal girl or the ideal woman. Unable to match the ideal no matter how they try, many girls begin to loathe themselves for falling short. Many women continue this self-loathing in their adult lives.

“To try to meet the expectations of who they should be, teenage girls may have to tame themselves, blunt themselves. They learn that if they express anger, they will turn people off, because feminine, good girls are agreeable, not cranky. Swallowing anger can lead to confusing teen-girl behaviour. Even though on the surface your daughter may appear sad, happy or indifferent, she may really be bottling up rage. Where does girls’ suppressed anger go? For some, it may gradually become depression. Girls may seek escape in drugs and alcohol. And for some, anger transforms into self-aggression: anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, suicide. Similarly, girls tend to be wary of fully displaying their intellect or admitting to other ‘bad’ emotions such as jealousy, guilt, loneliness, insecurity, sadness and anxiety.”

For girls who are supporting friends in crisis, I offer them the following advice:

  1. Seek professional help. If you feel that a friend is showing warning signs of risky behaviour or a mood disorder, a good starting point is to talk to a trusted adult – a parent, school counsellor, favourite teacher, sports coach.
  2. Banish dark secrets. Whenever a girl says she wants to tell me something and asks if I will keep it secret, I explain, ‘I can keep secrets but if what you tell me involves you harming yourself, or anyone else hurting you in any way, then I am going to care about you enough to get you help. You can trust me – you can trust me to get you the help you need.’ I have never had a girl decide not to tell me her pain after hearing this. In fact, I find girls actually feel comforted by knowing I am going to take the secret out of their hands and act for them. Try this approach next time a friend asks you to keep a dark secret.
  3. Build networks of support. For teen girls, life is all about networks, isn’t it? The best way to prevent problems, or support your friends on the road to recovery, is to forge strong, healthy networks. Networks may include doctors, therapists, adult mentors, other relatives, school counsellors, and friends at school and out of school. Find out what support networks you can access in your school and community.
  4. Give a Book of Love. This is an idea that I was told about by a teen with an eating disorder. When I asked her to tell me the most healing thing someone had done for her, she said that it was when a friend sent her a Book of Love. ‘It was just before I went into the most intensive treatment I’ve ever been in and I received a package in the mail,’ she recalled. ‘She’d filled a book with song lyrics, things she likes about me, inspiring quotes, and pretty stickers and other glittery things . . . She hadn’t told me she was going to send it, and it was such a lovely surprise. She left the last ten pages blank for me to fill in with positive things about myself.’ As with many people who have an eating disorder, this girl is also dealing with other issues: depression, anxiety, and a past history of suicide attempts and self-harm. I think the Book of Love is relevant for girls dealing with all such issues, to remind them how much they are cherished.
  5. Celebrate. When you, or your friend, is on the path to recovery there may be frustrating and disappointing setbacks, but there will be victories, too. Take heart in them. And celebrate.

Dannielle Miller, CEO, Enlighten Education and Author, www.enlighteneducation.com.au

 

Our Ask an Expert Week panelists are all qualified professionals in their field. However, advice given on The Kids Are All Right website is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional counselling or psychological care, medical care and diagnosis.

 

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Comments

  1. Danielle’s comment ”I find girls actually feel comforted by knowing I am going to take the secret out of their hands and act for them.” is very true, I know that my daughter was greatly relieved when she knew that I was getting help for her problems, that help was on the way.

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