Depression & The Indian Teen

The teenage years are full of hormonal shifts that can have your child’s moods plummeting and soaring like a restless bird in flight. But what may appear as teenage moodiness could also be symptoms of depression. With the increasing number of suicide cases among teenagers in India, it is extremely important to understand the mental landscape of your teen. Rajashree Balaram sizes up the factors that are driving teens to doom, and the warning signs to watch out for before they reach point of no return.

Three years ago, a report on the world’s adolescents prepared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) was released at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. At that time, Flavia Buestro, Assistant Director-General for Family, Women and Children’s Health at WHO, had remarked that “the world has not paid enough attention to the health of its adolescents”. Buestro’s discomforting observation was connected to the dark heap of information compiled in the report through a global study on teen behaviour—suicide had emerged as the leading cause of death among teens after road traffic accidents and HIV/AIDS.
As we steer through 2017, things have only gotten worse. There are increasing reports of teen suicides that cannot be so easily tuned out of your orbit anymore. Our teens are getting sadder every day, and we are partly to blame for the world we have created for them—a world where appearance, achievement, status, popularity and affluence have become punishing markers of self-worth. The first step to restore a sense of well-being and security in our teens is to understand the demons that they are battling with and to help them conquer each…one at a time.

Academic hell-hole
At present, the pressure on teens to succeed at everything they do is exacting at its best and life-threatening at its worst. As the cost of higher education mounts to ridiculous figures, parents are turning to scholarships to facilitate the best academic opportunities for their children. While the motives are all well-intentioned, parents fail to acknowledge the pressure cooker environment that they may be placing their child in—an environment that’s dictated by the relentless demands of coaching classes, classes, grades, tests and competition. Dr Anjali Chabbria, a well-known Mumbai-based psychiatrist, says she cannot stop feeling alarmed at the performance syndrome that has taken hold of parents and teens today. “My youngest depression patient has been a six-year-old.
I have had patients as young as nine overdosing on sleeping tablets. Part of the problem is also the current family dynamic in most cities that are drastically different from the ones that the earlier generation was raised in. Most kids today do not have the comforting cushion of a joint family system, and, therefore, fewer bonds of cousins and grandparents to rely on.” The saddest part of the story is that teens have learned to conceal depression behind a brittle facade of sarcasm and bravado, making it all the more difficult for parents to identify the warning signs of depression.
Johnson Thomas, director of Aasra, an NGO that runs a 24/7 helpline for depressed people with suicidal tendencies, says that the problem is most severe in Mumbai. “Any little problem becomes magnified as there is no family support system readily available to mitigate painful issues,” says Thomas. “Every three seconds there is someone in the city who is attempting to die. The two main reasons for depression are identified as exam pressures and relationship break-ups. It does not take much math to figure out that most of the people who are attempting to end their lives out of depression today are teens.”
Unlike earlier, where middle-class parents had jobs that came with fixed timings,which allowed them to have better work-life balance, parents of teens today are not just busy putting food on the table but also spending longer hours at the office to provide their kids with all the fancy stuff. “Today, the aspiration graph is a different beast altogether,” says Dr Rachna Singh, Delhi-based psychologist and lifestyle expert. “Parents are so tired at the end of the day that they do not have the time or patience to chat with their kids. It becomes easier to dismiss their teenager’s troubles as just hormonal issues and unreasonable tantrums, all part of growing up.” Singh advises parents to keep a hawk-eye watch on signs of irritability, hostility, withdrawal from friends and family, tearfulness, hopelessness, uncommonly poor performance at school, changes in eating and sleeping habits.
Line of control: The first thing to remember is to listen and not to preach. “Teenagers are adept at shutting you out when you pass judgement or criticise,” says Salony Priya, a Kolkata-based counseling psychologist and education management expert. “So make a conscious effort to offer them unconditional support. While it may not be easy to get your teen to talk, make sure he or she is well-aware that you will always be available when they need you and they are your top priority. Do not persist when they are finding it hard to express. If your child is having a hard time articulating or confessing her feelings to you, consider seeking the help of a third party such as a teacher or a counsellor.” The objective should be to get them to talk and confide.

The beauty contest
Teens, specially girls, are deeply vulnerable to feelings of low self-esteem because of the 24/7 platform for comparison that social media provides. According to clinical psychologist and practising therapist Sonali Gupta from Mumbai, the issues that govern the teenage mind may seem trivial or amusing to you but torturous to them. Respect the difference: “Teens can end up feeling terrible about their pimples, complexion, wardrobe choices, body, or even the absence of a boyfriend! Teenage is also a phase that can make kids feel so insecure and awful about themselves that they tend to draw confidence by putting others down. The number of ‘Likes’ on a Facebook post has become a huge barometer for self-esteem in teens. They can feel ugly simply because their picture of Facebook or Instagram did not get the number of Likes that they expected, or even worse, their friend’s did!”
Parents have a greater responsibility, therefore, to create a secure environment at home, one in which the values of self-worth are tied to quality ofconduct, ethics and values. “Parents are the greatest role models for kids. So your behavior is the best yardstick for them,” says Salony Priya. “If they notice you evaluating someone on the basis of their appearance or obvious status, they are driven to do the same and, subconsciously, condition themselves to desire the same achievements or milestones so they can please you.”
Line of control: Their idea of good and bad are shaped by the conversations at home. Appreciate your child for the effort she puts into a sport or activity not just for the outcome. If you motivate and applaud them for participating in an athletics meet, instead of cheering only when they bring the medals home, they will focus on the sheer joy of putting in their best effort without feeling weighed down by the pressure of the outcome. “Teens are scared of letting their parents down, so make sure you are using the right words to communicate your feedback and reassure them for the choices they make,” says Gupta. “Don’t compare your child to your friend’s or your neighbour’s. Help him or her to discover the unique strength and talents that she has been endowed with.” This way, instead of shaping her into the doctor or engineer of your dreams, let her be the excellent poet or musician she is originally meant to be. “Let her or him excel at something that makes them happy and not something that make you feel proud. The focus needs to shift from perfection and beauty to personality and strength of character.”
“Depression also worsens with inactivity, inadequate sleep and poor nutrition,” says Bengaluru-based counselor Geeta Appachu.“Make sure your teen is getting an hour of physical activity every day. Let them choose the activity instead of thrusting it on them. They need to be excited about it, not miserable. Suggest things that are outside the box. Teens love uncommon choices and may ‘buddy’ up to you more easily if you suggest those. Dancing, shooting hoops, hiking, skating, tennis… brainstorm on those and if possible, participate and play along. The trick is to have the mood-enhancing endorphins in their bodies to do their work.”

Anti-social media
Gupta is also worried at the creeping intrusion of social media in our lives. “While earlier teen agony mostly centred around academic scores, now it is intensified a lot more by the act of going through dozens of pictures and choosing the right one to post every five hours on Instagram,” she says. “That apart, social media is offering unrestricted access to disturbing visual content through live streaming of rape, suicides and nude orgies. Parents better wake up and smell the coffee. A rising number of parents are now buying a smartphone for their 10-year-olds because they are tired of handing their own handsets to their kids to keep them occupied.”
Most parents do not take the influence of social media seriously enough. You are letting your child free access to a world that he or she is not prepared to navigate through so early in life. A world of sexting, cyber-bullying, nude selfies is readily available at their disposal wherever they go. Smartphones are 24/7 devices, not like the average home computers and tablet that still offer scope for parental supervision.
Aggarwal advises parents to hand a smartphone to their adolescents only after they have shown some responsibility with the way they have used a regular feature phone that can only send text messages and place phone calls. “Be prepared for accusations of being a monster, but a smartphone at the wrong age can drive your teen to cross boundaries that he is not prepared to. He or she could be in the same room as you, and still be having an involved conversation on group chat with friends or strangers.”
Teens are so absorbed today in the virtual world that they are slowly being stripped of all communication skills in real time. Everything is being placed in a non-verbal disabled context, and the nuances of body language, facial expression, and even small vocal reactions are made obsolete in the dialogue of a chatroom.
Line of control: Of course, phones are useful devices that can help you stay in touch with your child when you are at work. A smartphone can also enable your teen to gain access to powerful apps, including education tools, chat apps to stay connected with their friends and useful information on the Web. We are not suggesting you push your back to the Atone Age; just make sure your child earns the privilege of using a smartphone. “Set rules and instill a sense of responsibility,” says Rachna Singh. “Make them promise never to take a nude selfie and never meet strangers they have known on the Internet in real life. The ground rules should also include some non-negotiable usage behaviour such as no phone at the dining table or in the classroom. Ensure that the consequences when they break the rules are tough—may be no phone access for a month.”
Your child may not be necessarily happy with all the disciplined choices you make for them today. But some day they are going to be grateful that you did step in and hold their hand when they desperately needed
you to.

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