Coping with teenage depression

Nicola Morgan with teenagers Aolfe Forbes, left and Nicola Moffat from Firhill School
Nicola Morgan with teenagers Aolfe Forbes, left and Nicola Moffat from Firhill School
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HE lounges about in bed all day or sits glued to the Xbox, emerging from another Call of Duty kill session only to grunt the word “pizza” before retreating back to zombie mode.

Try to stimulate conversation and the response is met with silence. Suggest something radical like getting dressed, a shower or homework and expect a door to be smashed in your face.

She, meanwhile, is teary all the time, demanding total attention one minute and the next squealing to be left alone. She might not want to eat properly, maybe odd scratches appear on her arms with no clear explanation as to how they got there.

Just typical teenage angst? The kind that makes even the most loving parent consider the benefits of gently wringing their neck?

Or is their frustrating truculent behaviour a sign of something much more worrying?

It’s estimated around 10,000 young people in Scotland are experiencing mild clinical depression at any one time. Across the UK, it’s believed approximately three in every 100 adolescents are affected.

Others stumble through their crucial teen years, wracked by low self esteem, overly stressed out and struggling to understand just what’s happening to their feelings and why.

As for their parents, there’s the challenge of trying to unravel their teenager’s jumbled mind in the hope of establishing just what on earth might be going on.

Now in a bid to provide vital support to both sides of the locked bedroom door, Edinburgh City Council library service and NHS Lothian have united to create a comprehensive guide to help troubled youngsters and their anxious parents.

Under the banner Healthy Reading, health and library experts have sifted through the maze of help books and websites to create a guide aimed at assisting children and teens, parents and carers through dealing with problems such as anxiety, exam stress, depression, bullying and eating disorders.

According to Cathy Richards, lead clinician, at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service at NHS Lothian, who worked with city libarians on the reading project, just understanding what is going on in a typical teenager’s brain – or an angry child’s outbursts – helps whole families cope better with the hormonal rollercoaster.

“It can be very difficult for parents to spot whether a young person is simply doing what young people do or if there is actually some cause for concern,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s enough to know that they are not the only person going through something, or finding it difficult to cope with a teenager. If there is advice, or an explanation, as to what is going on, it’s all it takes to help get through.”

The initiative is expected to be particularly helpful for families who might otherwise simply try to “muck through”.

And, clearly, it’s never been more necessary, with rising numbers of children and young people identified as having mental health issues such as depression, stress and anxiety attacks.

One recent survey for Tesco Mobile suggested teenage-style angst and hormonal rages are now hitting children as young as 11. Meanwhile, a report at the end of 2010 suggested that 22 per cent of young Scots are depressed all or most of the time.

That survey of 16 to 25-year-olds for the Prince’s Trust, claimed one in six – 18 per cent of young Scots – had self harmed. And more than 25 per cent said they felt insecure all or most of the time, while 24 per cent said they felt isolated.

It’s thought to be fuelled by a “perfect storm” of job and money worries meets hormonal roller-coaster, stress over appearances and relationships combined with anxiety over having the “right” designer labels, smart phones and lifestyle.

Dot Horne, of 6VT Café in Victoria Terrace, which helps vulnerable young people through a series of development programmes, says she sees many young people struggling to cope with demands of a modern age.

“I hear a lot of young people say they are depressed. I see a lot who have had quite a difficult family background, they’ve had to deal with death or family depression.

“Unemployment opportunities aren’t there and they feel there’s a lack of future. They can’t see any way out of it. They start to opt out of everything, they don’t seem to enjoy things they used to like.

“But it can be very difficult to identify if a teenager’s behaviour is typical teen hormones or if something is really wrong.”

Edinburgh-based author Nicola Morgan – whose book about teenage brain development, Blame My Brain, is on the Healthy Reading list, says it helps if parents understand what youngsters are going through.

She points out that the teenage brain, far from being in a Call of Duty fog or swamped by nothing more vital than what One Direction might be doing today, is actually abuzz with activity, creating new neurons and then, as time wears on, killing off others.

“There’s this huge growth of neurons then a huge pruning away process,” she says. “It’s not chaos as such but certainly turmoil, parts suddenly growing, others being lost. So teenagers who can do something perfectly well, like a sport, suddenly find they’re not so good at it.”

Teenagers’ sleeping habits are also a battleground for many parents, but according to Nicola, who also writes gritty teen novels, late nights and long lies are completely natural.

“There’s something in the teenage brain that means their sleep needs are greater than for adults but their body clock only switches on to make them feel sleepy at the same time of night as an adult’s does.

“You can’t just tell them to go to sleep – they can’t. Then their body tells them they need more than nine hours sleep so you can understand where it starts to get difficult.”

She argues that teenagers’ brain development means they are not mature enough to handle emotions like anger and stress properly – leading to angry outbursts. And their ability to properly assess risks is also still forming, making them more likely to dice with danger.

Home life with a surly teen could be improved, she believes, if parents lead by example – for shouting or arguing with a teenager simply wires their brain to behaving in the same manner.

“If the adult is calm and realises why this is happening, they can walk away. And by all means have the conversation about behaviour later, but remember it takes two people to have an argument.”

• The full list of Healthy Reading material can be found by going to www.edinburgh.gov.uk/healthy reading. Books can be ordered online and delivered to local libraries

Spotting the signs

TYPICAL teen? Or is your surly youngster showing signs of depression?

According to Cathy Richard of NHS Lothian, there are some specific signs to look out for.

“There are certain risk factors that can make some children more vulnerable,” she points out. “However, if someone is depressed then the lower mood will affect their day-to-day function.

“Things like performance at school and interaction with friends will begin to change.

“They are likely to become irritable. They will pull back from things they used to enjoy, stop doing hobbies, stop being in contact with people.

“Depression affects concentration, so you are likely to see an impact across their whole lives which last more than a couple of days.”

The length of time the behaviour persists can be an indication that your teenager is experiencing more than simple hormonal angst.

“We are looking at something that lasts a couple of weeks,” she adds.

“If parents and young people feel they need help, they should go to their GP or speak to a school guidance teacher.”

NHS Lothian has two dedicated websites geared towards supporting young people and parents through stress and depression.

The first, www.depression inteenagers.com offers guidance on unravelling feelings along with pointers to support, reading material and relaxation techniques.

Meanwhile www.stress andanxietyinteenagers.com also provide help and support for parents and young people undergoing periods of stress and anxiety.

I FELT ANGRY ALL THE TIME

CARRINA Black, 19, has recently been diagnosed with depression after a turbulent teenage spell that saw her behaviour become increasingly erratic.

“I remember feeling angry and sad all the time,” she explains. “I started to kick off at my teachers, I was angry at school and got into trouble a lot.”

Her problems were rooted in the loss of her father when she was just nine, and then her mother six years later. “I had a lot to deal with, I went to bereavement counselling but it was all play-based and I was 15 by that time, so it wasn’t for me. I ended up excluded from school ten times. The thing is, I actually enjoyed learning and I enjoyed school. But I didn’t like teachers telling me what to do. I thought the only people that should do that were my mum and dad and they were gone.

“But I don’t blame everything on losing my parents,” she adds. “I think I had some hormonal imbalance too and everything together just made it worse.

“I suppose I thought I was mature and knew everything. Now I’m 19 I know that I was just a kid.”