Breaking Silence on the Childhood Depression Epidemic
A new study published in the Translational Psychiatry journal suggests that mental illness may affect children in earlier stages of development than previously thought. Ariana Enjung Cha (The Washington Post) reports that after interviewing over 100,000 subjects, researchers found that “depression in many children appears to start as early as age 11.” Parents, many of whom already face concern over the risk of adolescent suicide, now have reason to also monitor risk factors in younger children. Beneath the façade of a thriving teenager, my silent deterioration epitomized the worst fear scenario of any parent. But after years of contemplation and nearly-unbearable suffering, I took a radical approach to a problem I knew viscerally, yet had never challenged. I merged writing candidly about serious issues of mental illness with doing so shamelessly and humorously. I offer this strategy as a way to reshape dominant culture around depression to include open dialogue, and protect vulnerable youth from dangers they are systematically unequipped to handle.
In my early twenties, I publicly chronicled my long and treacherous battle with an eating disorder and depression, giving thousands a window into the darkest and most private corners of my life. I shared unfiltered photos of my weathered face mid-breakdown, wrote about how I’ve garnering strength from perpetual sadness, and spoke at mental health events. As an adolescent, I tormented myself trying to identify the cause behind my issues, but depression wasn’t even on my radar. Children cannot be expected to rely on themselves to combat harmful thoughts and impulses they don’t understand. As adults, we are in the position to address the dangerous force of collective ignorance; to reverse the process by which it transpires, and learn how to support others. I lacked exposure to, and thus a capacity to emulate, a role model who acknowledged the widespread affliction of depression. Despite fears over the fragility of our youth, visibility about these issues is critical and silence kills. It has been years since I pushed back on society’s inaction toward an epidemic of silence, and I’m proud to say I’ve become the person I once needed. I have been told that my writing has saved lives, given a voice to those previously suffering alone, and even prevented suicide attempts. Depression should bring us together, not tear us apart. The depression experience must first be confronted at grassroots-level, beginning with children, who have an enormous capacity to understand the pervasive disease. It is the responsibility of adults to create environments inside and outside the home that shatter this culture of silence.
Society’s definition of ‘family’ – which connotes a genetic bond – does not pay tribute to the solidarity that can be found in self-built communities. As I sit around the dinner table with my ‘built family,’ a conversation may begin with “I had a breakdown a month ago” and end with a personal account of what it’s like to lose a brother. I surround myself with the right people to avoid the dangers of seclusion. Over big pasta dinners, we consider a shared natural impulse to laugh awkwardly sometimes as we tell stories of trauma. Strange as it may seem, we all cope differently and repetition teaches us how best to convey stories of loss: of a childhood, of family, and sometimes, hope. Silence will forever be more damaging than the use of benign coping mechanisms, like humor, to buffer discomfort. And all in one moment, transparency just feels natural. Sharing stories of darkness does not smother the light; in fact, we laugh more around this table than we ever have before. We all attended the same high school; a place that sheltered us physically, but was barren of truth and reality. Back then, I hid my swollen eyes, but now I walk fearlessly into the room I once walked out of. For this – not despite it – I am loved.
Normalization of the depression experience will happen as more of us tell our stories. I’ve offered mine as one piece of a larger narrative, fighting to combat stigmas surrounding depression; today I am better for it. The proliferation of honest stories will start this movement, but more will be needed. We must demand policy and support. It is critical that we fight for the rigorous enforcement of parity laws for a more impartial future. Mental health professionals, who should most understand our plight but often exploit it, must be held accountable for the newly regulated co-pay policies they ignore. Access to mental health education and resources must become widespread and we must address the obvious link between mental illness and incarceration.
Depression is written across the forehead of America’s child in bold black sharpie, though most choose to look past it. It lives in the mind of the troubled kid with a dysfunctional family, from a tiny, ailing town, just as it does in the girl from Connecticut with what looks to be the quintessential, privileged family. As a sufferer, I deserve more than to wonder how this deadly disease continues to be improperly advocated for. Others have approached me for insight on how they too can find a voice. They’ve witnessed the influence I’ve been able to have within a framework of collective silence. They are unaware that they don’t need me; the power and mental fortitude lives in us all. I am astonished by the bravery of each individual because years ago, I was in that place of vulnerability. But no other part of my history has been so worth living for. You are not alone in fearing that honesty has no place in our society, but I – one who has seen the impact a voice can have – demand your trust. It’s your turn to fight; for your friends, your children, and yourself.