We see a lot of depressed children and teenagers in the Emergency Department. Often it is because the child is suicidal. Either he or she has has attempted to kill himself, or has stated that he wants to. Depression often comes to us under other guises too- headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, anxiety, chest pain and palpitations. A suicidal child or teen is a terribly painful thing for parents as well as the patient. How do things get this far?
Sometimes the child is stressed and feeling bad because of things going on outside the home, and outside themselves. Kids can have trouble with friends, girlfriends or boyfriends, bullies, or teachers. These things can get a kid depressed, but it often takes other stresses as well to get them so bad that they are suicidal. More difficult for the kid are the troubles in the home, or the troubles in him or her self.
Change in the home can make a kid sad, such as divorce, moving, parents losing jobs, new parental boy or girlfriends moving in. Some parents are abusive to their spouse or kid, yelling and hitting. Sometimes the parents just don’t know how to handle their kid well. When the kid seems lazy or stubborn, they punish the kid. If the kid does not act better, they punish her some more. Then they punish more, even when punishment has clearly not worked to change that particular kid’s behavior. Meanwhile, all that punishment certainly is not helping the child feel better about themselves.
Finally, depression often happens because of something within the child. They have ADHD, or bipolar disorder, or mood disorders. Teenagers have hormones raging in them, and a skewed perspective on life. Little problems to us are often huge in the life of a teenager. When a kid gets suicidal, it is often because of a brew of factors outside the home, inside the home, and inside the kid.
How do parents prevent kids from getting so down they are suicidal? It is not easy, because kids will hide their problems, especially if they and their parents are not getting along. Sometimes, the clues are subtle- slipping school work, multiple vague complaints (headaches, stomachaches, etc), poor appetite. Sometimes the clues don’t help us be sympathetic with our child, like when they fight with us, get defiant, or just shut down and do not talk at all.
If it seems your child or teen is getting depressed, act now. First, start being open and friendly, instead of a drill sergeant. Forgive your kid’s bad behavior, so you can begin to find out the whys. Ask them straight out- are you depressed? Are you suicidal? Do you have a plan about how you would kill yourself? It the answer is yes, time to seek help.
The best helpers to start with are either school counselors, or church counselors. Just about all schools and most religious denominations have staff trained to talk with kids about their troubles. They can help parents decide if the child is going to be okay, or needs more intense and professional counseling and maybe medication.
So watch for depression if your kid is troublesome, or glum, or acting in those ways above. Do not be embarrassed to get help if you are not sure, or if things are looking bad. Getting help sooner is much better than seeing me later.