Adolescent Depression and Suicide

As the producer and director of “Race to Nowhere,” I get daily Google updates listing when and where the film has been mentioned on the web. Yesterday, I was alerted to David Petrie’s extraordinary essay, “Sometimes Depression is a Terminal Illness: Talking to a Teenager About Suicide”.  Rarely am I moved to tears, but this piece did me in.

With respect to “Race to Nowhere,” it is especially timely given the dramatic rise in teen depression and suicide rates.  Between 1995 and 2002, the number of 7 to 17 year olds treated for depression doubled to 3.22 million children[i].  According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control, 15% of high school students reported seriously considering suicide, 11% reported creating a plan, and 7% reported trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.  As Petrie writes, “According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control . . . in 2007 (the last year that statistics are available) over 4,000 teenagers and young adults killed themselves. They left behind thousands of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends who might ask themselves for the rest of their lives, “Is there something I could have done differently? Is there something I could have done?”

I am not a pediatrician or teen psychiatrist, but from what I have learned from the experts I’ve interviewed and the young people around me— one of the answers to the question “what can I do?” is: Talk to the teens in your life. And listen to what they have to say. Not just about homework or grades but about closeness to or alienation from friends; excitement about or rejection by the opposite sex; the overwhelm they might feel from the demands that are made on them daily that could drive them to conclude that the future is dim, in their innocent estimation. And, yes, we need to talk about suicide, and all that leads to it, as far as we can guess: the disconnection, the hopelessness, the giving up.

When the best we can offer parents and other adults who care for teens and pre-teens are “warning signs” of teen depression that may look like other indicators of “normal” teen behavior—extreme moodiness, outbursts of anger, changes in eating or sleeping habits, neglect of personal appearance, persistent boredom, and/or a decline in the quality of schoolwork--the importance of many protective factors , for example, of having other safe adults in a child's life who they might turn to if they don't feel comfortable coming to their parents, becomes paramount to ensuring his or her safety.  

If you are concerned for your own child, or know someone who is, the following resources may help:




Have the conversation, rather than wish that you did.

[i] Brent, D. (2005). Is the medication bottle for pediatric and adolescent depression half-full or half-empty? Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(6), 431-433.