I pulled up his grades on the high school’s website two weeks into his freshman year and was appalled at the sea of red zero’s and F’s that I saw there.
He said, “Well, I guess that’s it for me getting into a good college.” I was completely at a loss—was college out of the question at age 14? Why are all these F’s here when he tested at an honors level? Where is all this homework? What is going on?
We grounded him from everything, but he just shrugged it off; it didn’t seem to upset him. My husband remarked, “I just don’t get it. We have nothing left to take away and he doesn’t care.”
A few days later, his school called to tell us that he couldn’t breathe. The school nurse (a woman for whom there is a diamond crown waiting in heaven) took me aside and said, “He’s here all the time, almost every day.
I really think there’s something else going on here.” “Oh, lady, if you only knew,” I thought. He “bleeds for the world,” I thought to myself—Bosnia when he was only 8, Elian Gonzalez when he was 10 and, worst of all, 9/11 when he was 11.
He put himself in the shoes of those who died, wondering what they thought while trapped, whether they have families, what made them jump out of those windows. He couldn’t stop his mind from dwelling on those thoughts. We took him to see a therapist, but that ended when she told us that he was being manipulative, and we were poor disciplinarians.
One day, the school nurse asked him what was really on his mind. Out poured horrible thoughts and feelings centered on school shootings. This child couldn’t focus on schoolwork because all of his thoughts were spent on thinking of ways to stay alive; he was always on guard for someone, somewhere to pull out a gun and start shooting. The nurse looked at me sympathetically and said, “He needs to see someone. Now.”
Then came doctor’s appointments, batteries of tests, interviews, a diagnosis of severe depression, medication and therapy. The doctor told us that severe depression is like falling off a cliff. It can happen so quickly, and the recovery is like crawling back up that same cliff on your hands and knees, often sliding backwards, digging in until your fingers bleed, until you finally make it back to the top.
Depression is a medical problem, but because it is a mental illness, the stigma that surrounds it can be an overwhelming barrier to those who need help. Children who are gifted, overly empathetic, bullied or who have a larger, more sophisticated view of the world can be at risk. Depression and ADHD share many overlapping indicators and are often confused, which sometimes results in misdiagnosis.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens 15–19; one out of every eight adolescents suffers from depression. Despite these statistics, most schools refuse to talk openly about mental illness and suicide, under the mistaken notion that (like sex, but strangely, unlike drugs and alcohol) talking about it will increase its incidence.
High school and college age students suffer from higher rates of clinical depression than the general population and have the least amount of awareness and access to help. Teens and children who are experiencing depression feel hopeless.
With so little information about mental illness and recovery available to them, many young people choose to commit the ultimate act to stop the pain. I will herald the day when depression screenings will be just as commonplace in schools as vision and hearing exams.
Talk to your children about depression. Look for the symptoms—changes in mood, social groups, academic or sports performance, sudden experimentation with drugs or alcohol, or loss of interest in previously enjoyed hobbies. If there is any doubt about whether your child is experiencing typical teenage moodiness or something more, consult a mental health professional.
Ask your family physician for multiple recommendations, and interview therapists until you find the right fit. Keep in mind that depression is an illness that may be treated with therapy and/or medication.
My son has successfully crawled to the top of the cliff, and he graduated from high school last month. He is looking forward to college, truly recovering and dealing with life’s stresses with the tools he learned in therapy.
Professionals often remark that most people emerge from therapy much stronger, because they have gained the skills to help them through troubling times more easily. I see this very clearly in my son; he now can effectively deal with stressful events, both large and small. I also see, and am so joyful for, the bright and happy future he has before him.
About the Author
Rebecca Palumbo’s son Dominic founded the “Out Of The Woods Walk” at age 15; he has raised over $50,000 to provide therapy to uninsured children and families across the Southland.