Sunday, September 09, 2007

Giving Sorrow Words

My friend, Mrs. Stevens, often gives me bits of paper on which she has jotted memorable lines. The other day she handed me a Post-It with a line from Macbeth. “I wonder if this might be of use to you with the work that you do,” she said.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.

The next morning I read in the newspaper that a study by the federal government shows the suicide rate among preteen and young teenage girls has spiked by 76 percent in the past 15 years. The study showed a 10 percent spike in the rates of suicide by people ages 10 to 24 in just one year. I thought of the words on that that yellow Post-It. I thought, too, of the young adults in our new DVD, Depression: True Stories. Two of the three I interviewed had been suicidal. All have recovered, and therapy was key. In therapy, they learned to share their feelings, to “give sorrow words.”

In Depression: True Stories 17- year-old Angie admits she was cutting herself. Her sister Cynthia found out that Angie was injuring herself and took her to a therapist. The connection Angie felt was immediate. “When I first met with my therapist I really just wanted somebody I could talk to and confide in,” Angie says. “That’s really what I wanted all along.”

Within a month, Angie stopped injuring herself and her depression began to lift. Now she uses the skills she learned in therapy. Expressing her emotions in healthy ways helps her to stay well.

I spoke with Mrs. Stevens after reading about the suicide study. Like any loving grandmother, she worries about her grandkids. Girls in our society, she says, are under so much pressure. They feel pressed to achieve socially and academically. They strive to be not one pound over or under a certain weight. They think they have to wear just the right clothes, or not fit in.

Not all girls feel this stress, but Mrs. Stevens is right. The anxiety is high for our kids.

Richard Lieberman who heads up the Los Angeles Public Schools Suicide Prevention program spoke with Greg Bluestein, a reporter for the Associated Press, who wrote an article for The Boston Globe about the new federal study. Lieberman talks about the pressures facing today’s middle school youth.

“They’re kind of all transition kids,” Lieberman says. “These are turbulent times to begin with. The hotline’s been ringing off the hook with middle school kids experimenting with a wide variety of self-injurious behavior, exploring different ways to hurt themselves.”

Not all youth injuring themselves are suicidal. Not all people who are suicidal are depressed. But there are plenty of kids crying for help. We, the adults in their lives – whether parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, or professionals who work with youth – need to give our kids our time and attention. Kids need the chance to “give sorrow words.” If they can talk it out, maybe they won’t act it out.


Resources
Depression: True Stories
Words Can Work: When Talking About Depression and Other Mental Health Disorders

Related Issues and Answers columns
Bi-polar disorder
Coping with stress

Related columns for young people

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Depression’s Not Your Fault

I’ve just completed producing Depression: True Stories, our newest DVD, and writing the companion Words Can Work booklet, culminating two years of work with leading experts on the subject. The DVD profiles three young adults who sought treatment and worked hard at recovery. Chamique Holdsclaw, the great professional basketball player, is one of those interviewed. In her story, she points out that asking for help with mental illness is a sign of strength, not something to be ashamed of.

For years, parents and health professionals asked me to produce a program about depression. I hesitated a long time. I worried that doing the work would strike too close to home. My mother had bipolar disorder, and other loved ones lived with depression.

Before she died four years ago, my mother told me that people needed to understand depression, so I should write about it. In the same breath, she said she hoped I wouldn’t write about her. I knew it was because at age 89 she still felt ashamed of her illness. No wonder. Even close relatives, when Mom was in her depressive phase, would tell her to just “snap out of it.”

When the depression would lift, and she was feeling better, she’d make deals with herself. She’d promise to exercise more; maybe then, she said, she wouldn’t get depressed. That broke my heart. I knew it meant, on some level, she blamed herself for her illness. “It’s not your fault, Mom,” I’d tell her. “Your disease is caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain.” Still, at her nursing home, unsteady on her feet, she’d walk up and down the hallway and report to me later that she’d done 10 or 20 laps. Inevitably, her depression came back.

This project did hit close to home. It brought up lots of painful memories, but nothing more so than my wishing I’d known then what I know now. Although, most of the time, I tried to understand and comfort her, there are times I wish I’d responded differently. I’d have tried more actively to educate the people around her, too – including those who cared for her in a nursing home during her final years.

I wish my mother could’ve heard Chamique and the others profiled in Depression: True Stories. It would’ve given her comfort; she’d have related to their stories and understood that she had a serious but treatable illness that wasn’t her fault. I believe that she would no longer have felt ashamed.

Resources
Depression: True Stories
Words Can Work: When Talking About Depression and Other Mental Health Disorders

Related Issues and Answers columns
Bi-polar disorder
Coping with stress

Related columns for young people

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