Reaching Out to Depressed Teenagers

I’m concerned about teenagers in today’s world. In November 2018, the Washington Post reported on the skyrocketing rates of depression in American youth. A new report on the state of mental health in the United States says that in recent years, there have been “alarming” increases in major depression in youth. According to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, “the rise was most rapid among those ages 12 to 17, increasing from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 12.7 percent in 2015.”

I was a depressed teen once. I disliked high school. I didn’t fit in. I was never diagnosed or on medications. It wasn’t major.

I’ll never forget the day my mother said she had something she wanted to talk about with me. We sat down in the living room and she told me she was concerned about me.

She told me depression was nothing to be ashamed about, that it was very common. She offered to arrange for me to see a psychologist. “Just let me know if you’d like to,” she said. “It could be helpful. Many people see psychologists — there’s no need to be ashamed about seeing one.”

That brief communication turned my spirits around. Just a little, but enough to start the journey upwards. It was the caring underneath my mother’s words that spoke to me, of course. I never gave much thought to seeing a psychologist. Still, I’ll be forever grateful for being seen and cared for. For a moment, my heart was receiving oxygen.

Life stories
I’m always interested in people’s life stories. I wonder what gold can be gleaned from those who came before us. What can we learn about ourselves from the autobiographies of those who preceded us?

I consider St. Theresa’s life. She lost her mother when she was 4 years old; a few years later her older sister, who had acted as her second mother, entered a Carmelite convent in Lisieux, where she would be cloistered and forbidden to return. I wonder how St. Theresa came to lead a life of deep contentment and great fulfillment.

I consider the short life of Anne Frank. She lived out her days with a bright, positive focus, even when she and her family were hiding from the Nazis.

This saint and this child were able to journey through times of great personal challenge without succumbing to depression. I wonder if they were able to navigate the difficulties because they were living in their hearts, rather than being led by the chatter of the judgmental mind?

Anne Frank’s journal entries testify to her abiding in her heart. Her belief in the goodness of humans — a belief rooted in the heart and not in “the monkey mind” — did not wither when she was being chased by the Nazis.

St. Theresa wrote in her autobiography of being devastated by her mother’s passing and devastated once again when her older sister left her when she was 9. She shed tears; she didn’t fall into self-pity, bitterness or depression. She knew from a young age that life was larger than the circumstances that came her way.

As a spiritual coach, I have come to believe that more than anything else, “the monkey mind” accounts for the increasing number of people who are depressed.

When we spend our days swimming in the soup of judgments coming from the chattering mind, we are more likely to see the world as a place to be feared. We are also more likely to see ourselves as powerless to make things better.

We get stuck in the misery of seeing the world through this lens — not only due to habituation, but also because the mind doesn’t like to be confused or to admit that it might be wrong. If someone suggests that other possibilities might be available — say, the possibility of seeing oneself through the eyes of love, or the possibility of choosing different responses to the world — the mind is apt to snuff out the idea like a candle snuffer puts an end to the candle’s flame. “No, that is simply not true,” the mind will say. “I already know the world is unsupportive and difficult and I have evidence.” Or, if someone suggests that you’re not socially inept, to use another example, the mind will say, “You made a blunder at the party a few months ago — you are an idiot.”

Monkey mind
I wonder if depressed teenagers today are trapped in their “monkey mind” and need to find a pathway from the mind into the heart. Would Sally benefit from imagining herself as a magnificent light-filled being with a heart that has been designed to love the world? Would she get a moment of respite from the quicksand of her “monkey mind” and the harsh judgments it stirs up by tapping into her imagination?

What if she were to start each day for a few weeks playing with these images and sensing her nobility? Would her nobility and grandeur become less hidden, or at least more visible and palpable to herself? Would she begin to befriend her true self? Would these moments of oxygenating the heart help her pivot from the direction of misery to something closer to the direction of heaven?

Years ago, my mother said, “I know things can get better.” She offered to find a psychologist for me in a time before visualizations became popular. Perhaps you’ll want to share your caring spirit with a depressed teenager in your life, be it your child, grandchild, or someone else.

Offer the help of a psychologist, if you choose to. Or suggest the following practice to your dear one: Take two or three minutes upon waking to imagine yourself standing by the shoreline (or anywhere in nature) radiating light and inner beauty and standing tall in your true essence. Try this for three or four weeks to see if the effects are cumulative or deepening over time.

Let your dear one know everyone’s different. What works for some people might not work as well for someone else. Still, new approaches might be worth a try.



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