Dying to Talk
I was leaving the house this morning, heading for the Massachusetts State House. We were co-hosting the educational forum on teen depression and featuring our new DVD, Depression: True Stories. I grabbed the Boston Globe. Front-page headlines read: Three teen suicides shake Nantucket.
I’d heard that the Island off Cape Cod had been dealing with what was called “a spate of teen suicides,” and that a Globe reporter was writing a story. As healthcare providers, educators, lawmakers and work/life professionals arrived at the State House, many were discussing the article. It added a sense of urgency to the day’s event.
People filled the 300 seats. Another 50 or so lined the back of the room. State Commissioner of Mental Health Barbara Leadholm welcomed them. “If we can all remember that mental illnesses are treatable, there is hope,” she said. “And I want you to spread the word. Treatment, recovery and hope.”
The co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Substance Abuse and Mental Health also spoke. “When I was growing up, the response society had to depression was simply to ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,’ which we now know is a ridiculous answer to the problem,” said Senator Gale Candaras.
Eighteen-year-old Mike, his parents and sister, who are profiled in the film, said things would have likely been different if depression had been more openly discussed when Mike was needing help.
The expert panel, including two experts from Massachusetts General Hospital, answered audience questions – ranging from how to recognize the difference between normal teen angst and depression, to how to access care within the mental health system.
The two-hour forum was coming to a close when I took a question from the back of the room. I called on a tall, bearded man.
“I’m Buck Weaver,” he said. “I’m a clinical psychologist, and we have an office in Nantucket where we’ve suffered these losses …. the most recent [deaths] over the last three weeks, have been honor students. They’ve been terrific athletes. They’ve had good social networks, and it’s an unbelievable tragedy that we’ve lost four kids over the last year or so. How do you talk to other kids that … know kids that have committed suicide?
I asked Dr. Joe Gold, the medical director of McLean Hospital, one of the finest psychiatric hospitals in the country, to address the question.
Dr. Gold said we have to make it OK to have and to talk about strong emotions. We all know how difficult that is. So many adults want to avoid subjects they’re either uncomfortable with, or don’t know how to handle.
Mike Haas raised his hand. In the past few years, his hometown has lost four teens to suicide. In Depression: True Stories, Mike describes how his suicidal feelings led him to ask his school counselor for help.
“This is in response to Nantucket,” he said “ [In my city,] we went through a very similar phase…. We were being told ‘the time for grieving is over, and it’s time to go back to regular life, and it’s time to get back on track.’ And it really messed up a lot of kids.”
Mike said what everyone in the room already knew: There’s no time limit on grieving. There’s no rule about how soon someone should move on.
There was a collective groan. Can you imagine anyone saying to a kid in that situation “It’s time to move on?” Translation: Your feelings – whatever they are – aren’t legitimate. Stuff them. Ignore them. Pretend something didn’t happen.
The message is clear: Kids need to be able to talk. We have to make the time and create a comfortable environment to help them open up. It means listening, being available, and not judging. Not just because it’s right. But because, in some cases, it will save lives.
Related Issues and Answers columns
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Depression: A treatable disease