Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Monday, March 01, 2010
Preventing Teen Suicide
The suicide death of Marie Osmond’s 18-year-old son Michael Blosil pushes the issue of teen suicide into the headlines.
A friend of mine also lost a son to suicide. She regrets not seeking psychiatric care for him. “Surely Marie Osmond’s son must have had the best of care,” she says. “This just shows suicide can happen in any family.”
According to news reports, Osmond’s son had battled depression throughout his life.
Depression does not discriminate – any more than heart disease or diabetes do.
Like an estimated one-third of teens with depression, Blosil had become addicted to substances. He underwent treatment for substance abuse two years ago.
News accounts say Blosil told friends that he felt hopeless, and that he didn’t “fit in.”
Depression distorts thinking. It’s part of the insidiousness of the illness.
In our DVD Depression: True Stories, 18-year-old Mike Haas describes how the symptoms of depression contributed to his suicidal thoughts:
“I felt like I was just sinking in the ocean with like a weight strapped to my feet,” Haas says. “The pressure was just unbearable. I couldn’t breathe. I was just panicky, and I would lay in my bed in the fetal position for days, trying to make myself as small as I could, so that the pressure might be lessened a little bit.”
Haas received what turned out to be lifesaving treatment during two hospitalizations. He benefited from individual and family therapy and from anti-depressant medication. Today he’s in college and doing well. Mike knows depression can come back, so he’s vigilant.
At first, his parents had denied his signs of depression. But when they learned from a school counselor that Mike was talking about suicide, they acted immediately to get him professional help. And Mike is grateful.
Denial is not uncommon. Mental illness remains greatly misunderstood, which contributes to the stigma often associated with it and prevents many people from seeking and receiving potentially lifesaving treatment.
Often people who are depressed claim that, if you haven’t lived with the disease, you can’t imagine what it’s like.
In our booklet, Words Can Work: When Talking About Depression, Dr. Jefferson Prince, a child psychiatrist affiliated with Harvard Medical School, offers this description of the physical effects of depression.
“It’s as if you put a fifty-pound sack on every day and run through water. You get tired, and eventually can’t bear it any longer. You think: If I’m going to feel this way, I can’t go on. That’s when people think of suicide.”
Michael Blosil may have been under the care of a doctor. Either way, his
tragic death reminds us to be aware of the signs of depression and, when we see them, take action.
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Depression: A treatable disease
Thursday, February 25, 2010
A few nights ago, a friend asked me to read something her friend Ed* wrote. Ed is 77 and has just enrolled in his first writing class. His teacher gave his students an assignment. “Write an essay which starts ‘I am not a doctor, but….’ ”
Ed wrote about his wife’s bipolar disorder. I was riveted. I was taken back to my mom’s first psychotic break caused by her bipolar disorder.
My mom had arrived for a visit from out of state. She arranged on my fireplace mantel the plastic dinnerware she’d taken from the airplane. Her bizarre behavior terrified me. The next day, a psychiatrist friend met with her and told me that Mom was having “a psychotic episode.” The next week she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a lifelong but manageable illness.
Like Ed’s family – our’s was never quite the same.
I am not a Doctor
I am not a doctor, but it was evident that something was drastically wrong. She was a ballet teacher and choreographer who was suddenly reduced to a frenetic shell of herself. She was no longer receiving inspiration from the great classical ballets in which she had danced, or that she had lovingly adapted to the lesser talents and limited capabilities of aspiring school girls. Now, she was receiving messages of inspiration, and instructions for tasks to be accomplished from strange voices in the ether through her beloved pet German shepherd dogs, Rommel and Diana.
The imagined voices were loud. They were frightening and demanding, and they were incessant. Now, instead of Swan Lake, she was choreographing the objects in her bedroom. All the normal objects usually found strewn around a bedroom or on anybody’s bedroom furniture and she was adamant, nearly hysterical, that, once positioned, it was vital and imperative that nothing could be moved or changed. These were the simple objects that had been there every day, and, indeed, are the same as those in many other homes. The lipstick vial, the moisturizing cream and makeup containers, the perfume atomizer, the Chanel cologne bottle, a couple of paper clips, a handkerchief, the Meissen porcelain figure of a ballet dancer I gave her for a birthday gift, an unfinished letter and the Montblanc pen with the tiger eye barrel that had been used to write it. These inanimate and innocent objects were suddenly the essential elements in an eerie and mysterious dance production being choreographed in her highly agitated and wildly stimulated thinking. Her awareness of the world around her had snapped and collapsed into a jumble of symbols and characters woven into what was a previously unfamiliar religious allegory.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, she was communicating with Saint Martin, a wise and benevolent entity who existed only to assure a life of goodness and happiness for her and her two pet dogs that, in fact, channeled St. Martin’s guidance.
Colors were categorized and she assigned symbolic meanings to many. They were no longer just pleasant hues to be matched or savored. Colors were symbolic of emotions and actions to be taken, or clues, or omens of things to come. Red was the color of all things intense and passionate. Purple the color of spirituality and wisdom, and the other colors of the spectrum had similar assignments.
In her universe, there was nothing that was not symbolic of something else. A tiny porcelain owl that sat mutely and innocently in the dining room china closet for years was now elevated to be the avatar of knowledge. Important questions were answered with a whimsical, “The owl knows,” and she meant it.
There was nothing in the universe that was not assigned some arcane value that somehow promised to lead her to esoteric solutions for the mysteries of life. In the skies, the clouds formed themselves into images of dead loved ones beckoning from the great beyond, and the occasional contrails formed by jet aircraft piercing the atmosphere at 35,000 feet, in her distorted mind’s eye, formed religious symbols.
In an instant, her world changed from the orderly daily routines of a housewife and ballet teacher to an entirely unfamiliar and chaotic kaleidoscope-like jumble of color and sound and movement. That which had been entirely comfortable and familiar was now alien and threatening.
Her thinking was severely agitated by the heightened cognizance of everything in her environment, from the most mundane objects to the most animated. Nothing was simple. Every thought tumbled and bumped into the next thought, and generated another thought. The voices controlled, and they never went away. There was no rest. Sleep was a precious commodity that became rarer as her thinking patterns accelerated. As thinking patterns accelerated, comprehensive thought retreated, and coherence of thought was not to be found. Sleep was not permitted by the voices. Sleep deprivation sapped her stamina. Finally, she succumbed. With the last vestiges of her survival instinct, she agreed to do whatever was needed to get some relief, but more importantly to her, to get some sleep.
We arranged for her admittance to the local mental health facility and began to exchange information and work with a psychiatrist. I’m no doctor, but I knew this would be an onerous diagnosis. After three days of testing and observation, the conclusion was that her problems exceeded the capabilities at the local center, and the recommendation was made to move her to a private psychiatric hospital a hundred miles away. On entering the hospital, she was immediately put into an induced sleep and a rigorous course of drug therapy was initiated. The bad news was that it was diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder with schizophrenic affect. She was in a manic phase. Her recovery would be long and arduous, and I knew that for the family nothing would ever be the same again.
*Ed’s name has been changed to protect identities.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Zeroing in on Bullying
Waiting in the Dallas Fort Worth airport, I caught part of a story on Headline News: a girl had received a text message from bullies suggesting she kill herself. Police were considering filing criminal charges.
I thought about eighteen-year-old Breanna, whom I recently wrote about in the booklet, Words Can Work: When Talking about Bullying.
In Breanna’s story, she describes her experience with horrendous cyber bullying.
When she was in 8th grade, another girl wanted to go out with Breanna’s boyfriend Joe. So she told him Breanna had cheated on him.
Joe believed the lie and broke up with Breanna. He and his friends started picking on her and calling her horrible names.
Their harassment included an “I Hate Breanna” Web site and a note in her locker that warned she’d be killed if she went on the school ski trip.
Someone sent an instant message telling Breanna she should just kill herself, that she had no reason to live.
Breanna became so depressed that she talked of suicide.
“I’d take her to work with me,” Breanna’s mother Debbie says. “I couldn’t leave her alone. I was afraid she’d be dead when I got home.”
A month ago, five years after the bullying began, Breanna left for college. She is relieved no one from her hometown is attending the same college. The sight of her bullies still upsets her.
Breanna’s mom had tried hard to stop the bullying. She called the boys’ parents. They said their children would never do something like that. “You know how boys are,” they said. “It’s just a joke.”
Debbie called the school, too. She says they told her that because it was happening on the Internet they had no jurisdiction. Then Breanna found a threatening note in her locker. The principal told her that her response to it was “dramatic.”
Breanna and Debbie say parents and the school administrators allowed the boys to torment Breanna for two years. Finally, she transferred to a new school.
Adults too often turn a blind eye when they don’t want to deal with something or don’t know what to do. But when they ignore bullying, they are allowing a troubled young person to exert power over another person and inflict harm that can have a lifelong impact.
So many adults have told me of being bullied as kids. They remember clearly the cutting and cruel comments. They say it still hurts to think about it.
Dr. Gene Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, contributed to Words Can Work: When Talking about Bullying. “When I teach medical students,” he says, “I ask if they’ve been bullied. At least 25 percent say yes. To this day, the bullying haunts them. In adolescence, you’re self-conscious and trying out different roles and ways of relating to people. When you get hit below the belt, it leaves a lasting mark.”
Many schools have zero-tolerance for bullying. But far too many school administrators and parents fail to take bullying seriously. There are bullies in every school, and adults need to be proactive in stopping them. A young person’s physical and emotional well-being may be at stake.
As Dr. Beresin says, “When schools have clear zero-tolerance bullying policies, two things happen: boys and girls that might bully are less likely to do so; and those who observe bullying or are the targets of bullies feel much safer speaking up about it.”
When parents fail to investigate accusations of bullying, and simply assume their kids are innocent, they’re complicit in the harm. Allowing a child to get away with bullying does him or her no favors. Bullying kids can grow into bullying adults. And their victims are left without protection or help.
Coming Soon: Words Can Work: When Talking About Bullying - Booklet
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One girl's experience
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Heroin Floods U.S. Teens
Every day, twenty-five hundred teenagers misuse a prescription drug to get high for the first time.
An alarming 50 percent of all teens believe that using prescription medications to get high is much safer than using so-called street drugs, according to Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
Supporting a prescription drug habit can get expensive. That’s why many who become addicted to them turn to a less expensive and easily accessible alternative – heroin.
A recent New York Times article reported that heroin sales are being pushed beyond major cities into America’s suburbs and rural communities.
Law enforcement can do only so much to stem the tide. As New York Times reporter Randal C. Archibold writes, local arrests rarely make a difference. New dealers surface within weeks.
A Drug Enforcement Agency official tells Archibold, “[Arresting dealers] is like sweeping sunshine off the roof.”
That’s why parents need to understand that prevention is the best hope of saving kids from addiction and death. Prevention begins when you and your kids start to talk about drugs.
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Monday, March 30, 2009
Long before “green” was fashionable, I conserved water.
The other day at my health club, three girls – ages about thirteen, twelve, and nine – were stepping into a shower stall, giggling and shouting. Ten minutes later, the water was still flowing.
I saw no adult – parent or otherwise – nearby.
Without hesitation, I spoke through the shower curtain: “Girls, you might want to consider wrapping it up,” I said. “You’re using a lot of water. Remember, it’s important to conserve.”
One girl asked another, “What did she say?”
“That we should conserve water.” They laughed and continued showering. Ten more minutes passed.
I’d showered, dried my hair, dressed, and was ready leave. The girls were still in the shower.
I approached them again. “Girls, seriously, you’re taking a really long shower.”
Two of them emerged, wrapped in towels. The water kept pouring out at a rate, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, of about two gallons a minute.
“Hey guys,” I asked, “do you learn this stuff in school, about conserving water?”
“Yeah, we learn about it in science,” the oldest girl answered.
“It might be a good idea to teach your younger sister what you’ve learned,” I said. “Remember, it’s not just about the water that you’re using. It takes a lot of energy to purify the water so it can be used again.”
An oversimplification, but I figured it was the best approach, given the circumstances.
The older girl yelled for her sister to turn off the shower. “Eve, get out! I told you to turn it off!”
Another few minutes passed and Eve finally turned off the water. The shower had lasted twenty-five minutes. Approximately fifty gallons of water had gone down the drain.
The middle child asked me, “Do you work for a water company or are you with one of those water conservation organizations?”
No, I answered. I was just a human being, like them, who thought it was important that we take care of the earth.
The girls were obviously open to talking with me. I was about to explore why they didn’t apply what they are learning in science class to their day-to-day life. Their mother appeared from behind a row of lockers.
Mom was on her cell phone (a violation of club rules). She’d overheard my entire conversation. She continued her phone conversation, ignoring me ¬– and her daughters.
Suddenly, everything made sense.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
At the Heart of Steroids
When professional baseball player, Alex Rodriguez, admitted to using steroids, a nine-year-old boy told a TV reporter, “I don’t think what A-Rod did is wrong, really, but it’s not good for him.”
I was stopped in my tracks. Where did this boy get the idea that there’s nothing wrong with using steroids? The drugs are illegal; people who use them are cheating. He got this part right: they aren’t good for you; they can kill you.
I saw first hand how steroids can affect those who use them – and the people who love the abuser – while producing our DVD Steroids: True Stories Hosted by Curt Schilling.
Craig is profiled in the program. He’d used steroids during his teens and early twenties, because he was obsessed with being bigger and stronger. When he developed chest pains he went to the doctor, who warned that his heart muscle was hardening: If Craig didn’t get off the steroids, he could have a heart attack. He could die.
That didn’t stop Craig. Nor did the pleading of his parents, Jake and Joyce who’d endured years of his lying and "roid rages". Jake put it bluntly: “I said this on numerous occasions. ‘This would be easier if he was dead. It would be the easy way out. We wouldn’t have to deal with this.’ ”
Craig admits that the drugs turned him into a monster. “I had blowouts with my parents,” he says. “I had blowouts with my sister. Basically everybody who cared about me I kind of turned my back on and I was just . . . not in denial, I just don’t think I cared.”
That’s how addiction changes users. You don’t care about anyone or anything but the drug.
At last, Craig quit abusing steroids for good – after his new marriage broke up and a judge told him that if he didn’t stop using steroids, he’d never see his infant son.
When Craig describes throwing a bucket filled with his drug paraphernalia into a dumpster one Father’s Day, he cried.
He wants kids like the misinformed nine-year-old boy, and all parents, to know that using steroids is destructive – to the abusers and the people who love them. And, without question, it’s cheating.
The steroid scandal in major league baseball has given parents and educators plenty of opportunities to explain this to kids. Alex Rodriguez, an idol to millions, provides one more.
The message is clear: When you hurt your body, damage your relationships, and cheat to change your appearance or to improve your athletic performance – it’s wrong.
Related Issues and Answers columns
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
More Kids Having Kids
The number of teens having babies rose three percent in one year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The reason? Fewer kids using contraception, in the opinion of Maria Kefalas who was quoted in a New York Times article.
Kefalas is an associate professor of sociology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
I’m convinced that one reason fewer kids are using birth control is because of failed abstinence-until-marriage programs paid for by the federal government to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
When I was producing the documentary Sex Education In America, I observed middle school students being taught the virtues of saving sex for marriage. Teachers emphasized and exaggerated the failure rates of condoms and other forms of birth control and encouraged kids to chant catchy phrases: “Pet your dog. Not your date!” and “Give her a ring, not your thing!” (I’m not kidding.)
Some of the students told me that after their sex ed class they felt afraid of sex. That was in 1993. I wonder how those kids handled sexual intimacy as they grew up. If they did have sex before marriage, I wonder whether they used protection or told themselves, “It fails so often so why bother?”
Some abstinence-until-marriage curricula promote virginity pledges. Earlier this month, a study by Dr. Janet E. Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University showed, as earlier studies have, that these one-time promises by kids don’t work. In fact, when so-called pledgers broke their promise, they were less likely to use birth control, including condoms.
One teen told me, “If you make a vow to staying a virgin, you aren’t going to be walking around with a condom in your purse,” she said. “Then if do have sex, you have no way to protect yourself.”
Teaching kids responsibility for their sexual behavior is a parent’s job, tough as it may be for some parents to imagine their kids being sexually active. Moms and dads need to push through any discomfort and denial and talk with their kids about sex. Topics need to include the benefits of waiting, healthy relationships, where to get birth control, and how to use it.
In the long run, having these conversations helps protect kids. As former Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, says in Words Can Work: When Talking With Kids About Sexual Health: “Research shows that children who get open and honest messages are more likely to postpone sexual intercourse than those who don’t get the information they need. Moreover, they’re more likely to use contraception if they do have sex.”
So take a deep breath, put your kid’s well-being first, and start talking.
What Works: Sexuality Education
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