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Dealing with a teen's dark despair

columns Updated: Sep 15, 2012 22:47 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Teenage is the most stressful days of our lives," my son, 15, announced when I mentioned the 'what-I-thought-were-shocking but-psychiatrists-said-were-humdrum' findings of the Fortis Healthcare's Teen Suicide Survey over dinner last night.

"Not quite, adults have as many stresses," I defended. "Well, if you have your job, house and car in place, you have nothing to worry about. We have exams and relationships," he said with a Zen-like finality.

"We have relationships too," I mumbled. "Yeah, but you all have dumped people and been dumped, you are used to it. There's nothing like your first relationship breaking down. Kids go nuts with grief, this 'seventhy '- a class 7 student, to those unfamiliar with school slang - I know went to pieces," he said.

Though the image of an 11-year-old weeping over lost true love may make some of you snicker, my son's words pretty much put teen angst in perspective. Every emotion and experience teens undergo is heightened as they struggle to adjust to the hormonal and physical changes in their bodies.

My first encounter with suicide was when a class 8 student in my brother's upscale public school in Delhi jumped off the roof because he had done badly academically and an insensitive teacher had told him he could not let his parents down this way, more so because he was adopted. Instead of going home to his very caring parents, the despair of being not good enough made him to jump off the roof.

My visibly shocked brother said he was a great kid with really understanding parents who did not pressurise him to excel at school. They were obviously shattered and could not understand why a careless - I still think it was insanely criminal - remark by a teacher their son did not care about could make him take his own life. She didn't like him, he'd always said, and he'd appeared to shrug off her rants in the past. No one knows what thoughts went through his head as he climbed the three flights of steps to the roof to take his own life.

Several factors come together to make teens more vulnerable to emotional meltdowns, show more than one international studies. The Lancet series on suicides puts it down to biological changes (such as imbalances in serotonin, the 'happy' hormone that regulates mood), personality traits such as being impulsive or over-achieving, and poor social problem-solving skills, which combine with real-life crises (getting dumped, parents separating, etc) and psychiatric disorders (depression). Permutations and combinations of these factors make teens feel defeated and trapped more easily than adults.

Girls are twice as likely as boys to fall into a downward mood spiral as they undergo far more hormonal changes during their teens. Depression in young people often coexists with other mental disorders such as anxiety and disruptive behaviour, or illnesses such as diabetes, reports the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The problem, as always, is spotting the red flags in time and helping them get out of the funk without being intrusive. It's tough to tell someone -especially an explosive teen - that they are overreacting and they need to take things easier. The way to do it is to invite them to talk - "You look low. Things okay?" - or simply telling them you're around 24x7 for crisis calls.

It works. Sometimes I get calls at really odd hours from strangers I've met for an article just because they need to vent.

For many, talking to dispassionate stranger than friends or family works better, so do consider counselling for teens if the dark despair doesn't show signs of clearing up in a week or two.