Cover Story: Depression

Mood disorder. Dysthymia. Low Affect. Whatever you call it, depression is a disease that plagues 20 percent of teens before they reach adulthood. This percent drops to nine when teens reach adulthood. Therefore, teens ages 15-23 are the most susceptible age group to develop depression.
According to the NIH, the national trend for those seeking outpatient treatment for depression is upward. Here at CHS, the community reflects a similar pattern.
“I definitely see a higher rate of identification,” twelfth grade counselor Mark Snyder said. “With a heightened awareness, you see more incidences of diagnosis.”
The “heightened awareness” that Snyder describes is a state in progress. The last time the administration organized a professional development day systematically designed around anxiety and depression was two and a half years ago. Although the administrators are thinking of holding a similar meeting in February of this year, the plans are tentative.
Chair of the Professional Development Committee and Psychology teacher at CHS David Aiello says focusing the faculty’s attention on solely depression is harder than it seems.
“Usually unfortunately it takes sort of a crisis-like incident,” Aiello said. “There are so many things that we as a faculty want to direct our attention to.”
For senior Shaina Crall, it also took a crisis-like incident for her to realize she needed help.
“I do not know how it all started,” Crall said. “I was just bombarded by so many thoughts.”
Crall started experiencing symptoms of depression the summer before her junior year. She felt uncomfortable around her friends whom she had had for a long time, and she took more naps and stayed at home. It was only a matter of months before she entered treatment and was diagnosed with clinical depression, without knowing the true cause of her feelings.
Crall went through a series of group therapy sessions and eventually went on anti-depressants, but one thing was the most helpful for her recovery: a stress ball.
“I carried the stress ball around for several weeks after treatment,” Crall said. “It was great. I would put all of my cooped-up energy into the ball and I always felt a lot better.”
Although Crall could easily get a stress ball on her own, she had to convince her parents to let her go on anti-depressants. After several pleas, Crall’s parents finally recognized the severity of the problem and allowed her to go on medication.
Psychiatrist Robin Androphy, an adult psychiatrist who works with high school and college students occasionally, sees the interaction between the parents and patient of adolescents to be the biggest challenge of working with a young age group.
“Guidelines have to be addressed,” Androphy said. “The rights of parents to know certain information has to be balanced with safety issues.”
Androphy suggests that teens who have lower self-esteem, more negative thoughts, and a high rate of depression within their family have a higher risk of being depressed. But this is not to say depression looks the same everywhere.
“The way depression presents itself here is as varied as the diverse student population we have here,” Snyder said. “You may see somebody out playing frisbee in the quad, and have no clue that they may be going home and carrying a backpack full of anxiety and depression or ideas of self-harm.”
Suicide is the third most common cause of death among adolescents. As Androphy said, attempts for suicide are actually a major risk for actually committing suicide in the future. Androphy sees more women than men, but men who are depressed generally require more serious preventative actions.
“More girls attempt suicide,” Androphy said. “But more boys tend to succeed because they choose more violent methods while girls tend to overdose.”
Stressors
Stressors, such as the loss of a parent or breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, play a major role in depression. Over 50 percent of the patients who present to Androphy with an acute episode of depression have had a significant stressor in the past six months. In fact, Crall started feeling symptoms of depression after her grandmother died.
Along with stressors within the personal life of students, the competitive academic environment at CHS could play a role in the frequency of depression among the student body.
Aiello describes the predominant culture at CHS as saying, “They’re just going to have to keep up. We are going to keep pushing.” For those students who may already have low self-esteem and prolonged negative thoughts as Androphy describes, the stress of high school can be too overwhelming.
As a faculty member and a parent of a high school student, Aiello often reflects on his role in adding to the stressful environment at school.
“My experience of being a parent has made me much more aware of the affect that the teachers here have on the students at home,” Aiello said. “I ask myself this as a teacher, what’s our role in increasing the frequency and severity of anxiety and depression among the students?”
Aiello is not alone in his thinking. Snyder faces the challenge of considering both the academics and emotions of students on a daily basis.
“It’s a challenge to be in a competitive academic environment when it’s at odds with having a solid social and emotional well-being philosophy,” Snyder said. “I think that those two run counter to each other.”
Moving Forward
With the help of group therapy sessions, medication, and a new and supportive friend group, Crall is doing much better.
“The one thing I would suggest for anyone who is feeling depressed is to surround yourself with people you are comfortable with,” Crall said. “I have an entirely new friend group now than I did last year, and I can be myself with them.”
Snyder sees the friend network as the first line of defense, along with a trusted adult.
“If they come in here, we can talk about coping strategies to challenge the depression and acknowledged the problem,” Snyder said. “I would also suggest that they get help from an outside professional.”
Androphy agrees that a strong friend network is key to recovery, but realizing the support is there may be hard for someone who is severely depressed. Sometimes this line of defense is not enough.
“(If someone is severely depressed) it doesn’t matter that other people care, that their friends are calling, that other people are looking out for you. It’s what you’re feeling yourself,” Androphy said. “So people need to look out for people.”
If you suspect your friend might be depressed or considering self-harm, Aiello urges you to take the initiative and ask.
“If they were thinking about doing it, that may be all they needed to get some help,” Aiello said.
The other critical piece of defense is educating the teachers. As Snyder said, the adults model the behavior for the students. Aiello works to educate the staff on the most recent research in depression and anxiety. Such ideas as “No-Homework Weekend” have been implemented to acknowledge the mental health of the students. But Aiello sees the progress at CHS as a fight against long-standing stigmas.
“There are some people who still believe that mental health is not as important as physical health,” Aiello said. “We’re swimming upstream here.”
College counselor Carolyn Blair agrees with Aiello and Snyder that there is no limit to the amount of education the school can provide on the issue of depression.
Along with educating the student body and staff, Aiello describes the Psychology Club’s role in raising awareness on issues of mental health.
With an increasing awareness comes increasing identification. There is no limit to the amount we can educate, but the key according to Androphy is to keep things in perspective.
“Happiness now and anticipated success in life should not be based on whether you achieve a high mark in an AP course or whether you get into your first choice of colleges,” Androphy said. “The most important thing is to have a balance.”