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Parenting Part II: Know when your teen is sending signs of depression

The news lately has been full of heartbreaking stories of suicide among teens and college students. Most of the coverage has focused on the despicable bullying these young people experienced and the fact that several were gay.

But parents of teens and young adults need to know this: While bullying may push a despairing youth over the edge, and while gay youths may be especially vulnerable, most who kill themselves have something else in common. They are depressed or have another mental illness. And while some act with youthful impulsivity, many have been flashing warning signs for months or years.

“There are signs, but a lot of times parents are not very good at detecting them,” says Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

One problem is that “a lot of the warning signs are very similar to typical adolescent angst,” says Courtney Knowles, director of The Jed Foundation, a non-profit group devoted to preventing suicide among college students. And, often, teens do their best to hide their pain, says Laurie Flynn, executive director of TeenScreen, a non-profit group that promotes mental health screening and treatment. “Kids try so hard to put their game faces on,” she says. Flynn knows: She was shocked when her own daughter attempted suicide in high school. The star student had been troubled for a while, but “I thought she was doing just fine,” Flynn says. Since then, Flynn has spoken to many young people who’ve “thought about killing themselves for months and months.” That means there’s often time for kids to get help. “Suicide is the most preventable form of death,” says Joseph Fraioli, a 22-year-old law student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Fraioli, who says he was deeply depressed in high school, is a spokesman for Active Minds, a mental health advocacy group.

In an ideal world, these advocates say, all teens and young adults would get routine screening tests that can pick up signs of distress and suicidal thinking. Some pediatricians and some schools offer such screening, and parents should ask for it at every routine check-up, Flynn says. But the experts say parents should call a child’s doctor right away if they see signs of distress that last more than a couple of weeks. These might include:

  • A sudden slide in grades and withdrawal from friends and fun activities
  • Changes in eating or sleep, including sleeping or eating too much or too little
  • A lack of joy and enthusiasm or a new irritability

Getting help is urgent if your child is talking about dying, expressing hopelessness or engaging in risky behavior. In that case, be direct, Fraioli says: “Ask the person if they are thinking of hurting themselves, if they have a plan… If so, that’s an emergency. Don’t leave that person alone until you get help.” If your hunch is wrong, he says, most kids still will appreciate the concern.

Learn more from: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (, Active Minds (, Jed Foundation (, TeenScreen ( or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.

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The World Health Organization defines “mental health” “as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” In using this definition, S2i recognizes that some mental health challenges reflect brain diseases that, like physical diseases, require appropriate stigma-free and patient-centered care and include both mental health and substance use disorders. Other mental health challenges stem from social conditions and marginalization and require different forms of interventions.