Teen Depression Doesn't Always Look Like Somebody Else's Kid

Teen depressionMy daughter has always been a happy-go-lucky, bubbly, slightly flighty but completely loveable kid. Personality-wise, she is my mini-me: we crack similar jokes, make the same snarky observations, and share a love of all things Hello Kitty and reruns of The Cosby Show. So it’s hard to look back in our Harris family history and try to trace when exactly she started struggling with depression.

I feel the indescribable heaviness of guilt for not picking up on it earlier. Were the times I was scolding her for not paying attention in school and failing to complete her assignments really attributable to this newly discovered diagnosis? How long had she been harboring these negative feelings that she’s accepted as being normal that really don’t have anything to do with normal at all?


When her grades started slipping in 5th grade after she moved from a crappy public charter to a Catholic school, I thought she was just having trouble adjusting to the more challenging curriculum. By 6th grade, I thought she was just being a lazy student and showered her with lecture after lecture—and a wide variety of punishments from no phone, TV, or netbook to some pretty rigorous essay writing—about how she was limiting the options for her own future. She just couldn’t seem to get it together and didn’t seem to really want to. She was the center of her little tween social circle and loving it. Her teachers reiterated how intelligent and capable she was if she would just apply herself. That was way easier said than it was to get done.

Then in 7th grade, she started cutting herself.

Even as we’ve been dealing with it for well over a year, it’s extremely difficult to talk about, let alone write about. To me, it’s an admission of failure to protect her, even from herself, to relieve those dark thoughts and feelings that compel her to pick up something, anything sharp and start digging into her skin. Since she was small, I’ve monitored who she’s hung around, where she’s gone, what times she’s been coming and going. But her fight hasn’t been with anybody in the outside world. It’s been with herself.

Just like any disease that’s left festering too long, her cutting continued so in September or October, at the beginning of the 8th grade school year, I started making calls to counselors and psychologists, hoping to get her some more serious help. School counselors weren’t enough. She needed more serious help. But no one even bothered to call me back, not even to let me know why they couldn’t or wouldn’t see her. Maybe they already had all the patients they could take on. Maybe they didn’t treat children or adolescents. I’ll never know because call after call after call went unreturned.

At first, I tried to leave these vague messages because I didn’t want to put my baby’s business all out in the streets. But eventually, as no one seemed to be responding with the urgency I knew the situation called for, I started coughing up details about her self-mutilation. I had gone through at least 20 doctors on my insurance list of providers and nothing.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not almost completely disenchanted about the whole mental health care industry. Oh, and it is an industry. If you can’t call back about a child experiencing the kind of pain that leads them to find relief in inflicting pain on their own bodies, how am I supposed to believe that there really is a desire to help people? Factor in insurance—I have an HMO now but when she first started, I was out of work and didn’t have any health coverage at all—and it makes this already heartbreaking experience even more maddening.

Still, I’ve got to keep sorting through the weeds because prayer and positive reinforcement at home just aren’t the answer this time. My daughter is a beautiful child, inside and out, but whenever I glance at her forearm, thigh, or stomach, I feel nauseous. Dizzy even. She’s created a railroad track of gashes and long scratches that criss-cross each other as if they were keeping count of how many times she’d been hurt deeply enough to resort to self-injury. What I once thought was relatively normal teen angst isn’t relatively normal at all.

Hard as this is to share, I forced myself because, until we started going through, depression—and definitely cutting and self-mutilation—never really crossed my mind. It doesn’t run in my family at any age, so the reality of it has always been distant, something other people deal with and I pity, but never been forced to acknowledge. Now that it’s in my face and I see the symptoms personified in my own child, I hate that I didn’t put the puzzle together sooner.

Has your child ever struggled with the signs or symptoms of depression?


Image via kudumomo/Flickr

Read More >