Lesson #1: How to spot signs of depression

I’ve been over dozens of checklists for depression dozens of times. Still, I’m not sure I would have recognized signs of depression in my own daughter.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who had a teenage daughter who had dropped out of school and refused to leave her basement. In the morning, over coffee, she’d give me the latest on the home front, jokingly referring to her daughter as the basement dweller. On the odd occasion, that same daughter would come to work, curl up and sleep in the corner of her office.

Withdrawal from everyday activities. It a classic sign of depression.

It was 2004 and by today’s standards, I was likely the worst colleague in the world. I had no idea what she was going through. I didn’t recognize her own struggle or her daughter’s for what it was, but I do now.

How to spot signs of depression

I’ve been over dozens of checklists for depression dozens of times. Still, I’m not sure I would have recognized depression in my own daughter until, ever responsible, she asked me for help. She’s high functioning — a testament to her strength and will. She had straight As and friends. She went out. She went to school. She was on a swim team. She did her homework without my asking and rarely acted out at home.

This was lesson number one in parenting depression. The illness may look different from one kid to the next. It may look different from the checklists, and it may look different in the beginning.

Helpguide.org lists signs of depression, in addition to symptoms such as running away, drug and alcohol abuse, cellphone addiction, or reckless behaviour. It’s just one online resource. There are a ton of others, but they say the same things. According to the experts, the most common signs of depression in teens are:

• sadness or hoplessness
• hostility or anger
• changes in eating and sleeping habits
• fatigue or lack of energy
• tearfulness or frequent crying
• lack of enthusiasm or motivation
• poor school performance
• withdrawal from friends and family
• restlessness, agitation
• difficulty concentrating

As I became more experienced and, unfortunately, as my daughter’s depression deepened, it became easier to see these classic signs and to spot good days from bad ones. But there’s the rub. Depression, left untreated, gets worse. Had I known earlier, and had I known how long it takes to actually “get professional help” as all the guides tell you to do, we might not be where we are now.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, I now know that my daughter’s behaviour at home is the only thing that counts, because she can fake it for the outside world like nobody else. If I had a do-over, I’d also have paid far more attention to the combination of signs, for any one in isolation is harder to interpret.

In retrospect, here were my red flags:

1. Early onset puberty. It was my in-laws who pointed this out as a risk factor for depression, unhelpfully after a diagnosis had been confirmed. After digging into this more, I also learned that parents should pay attention to the rate at which puberty happens. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information in the US has published a few studies that indicate while girls who experience early onset puberty, reaching a level of maturity before others their age, are at a higher risk for depression, the speed at which they go through the stages of puberty doesn’t seem to have an impact. The opposite, however, seems to be true for boys.

2. Sleeping after school. I assumed changes in sleeping habits referred to kids not wanting to get out of bed in the morning or sleeping all day like my former colleague’s daughter. I didn’t see my daugther’s afternoon napping as an issue. She was often up late doing homework, so I didn’t think it strange to find her in bed with the lights off when I came home from work. Now I know that when she retreats to a dark room, she’s feeling low.

3. Shaky legs. In a world where millions upon millions of fidget spinners were sold, how does a parent assess restlessness in their tween or teen? Most kids I know are sort of twitchy. I didn’t notice he shaky leg until it was blazingly apparent, shaking the floor during dinner or my car while driving. Maybe it wasn’t even there in the beginning, but I see it now, mostly during uncomfortable conversations or other situations that heighten her anxiety.

4. A snapchat obsession. Smartphone addiction was on Help Guide’s list as a symptom, but I didn’t know how to recognize problematic behaviour. Every 13 year old kid I knew had a smartphone and they’d be on them, communicating digitally, while sitting next to each other. But I’d caution any parent who’s kid is spending a lot of time on Snapchat.

By far, one of my biggest failings as a parent was not seeing that app — which, let’s admit, is built on the premise of sharing fleeting remarks as if they never existed — as potentially harmful to a teenager’s emotional health. Those streaks your child is running, be wary! In my experience, they’re addictive and destructive. I’m convinced of it. More on that and smartphone use in this post.

5. The tip of the iceberg. Not really a sign of depression, but an essential lesson. What your child is telling you, what you’re seeing, is only the tip of the iceberg, particularly if they’re high functioning. That self-control, independence, responsibility and maturity you see in them may be preventing them from reaching out for help earlier. It may be telling them they can handle things on their own. It may encourage them to seek out their own resources, which, with the internet, can lead them down some pretty frightening paths. When and if they do reach out to you for help, my guess is there’s a lot more under the surface they’re not telling you.

I also should have been more present. In our parent-child relationship, my daughter was a star performer. She was doing her job so brilliantly, that I forgot to do mine at times. To be on top of her more. To ask her if she needed help, even when I knew she didn’t. To be home earlier from work, even if she could get herself and her brother fed. To have more family dinners.

Friends and family and professionals will tell you your child’s depression it’s not your fault. I believe that. But I also know that the staggering rates of depression these days are not without cause. I’d be foolish if I didn’t ask myself why. Why her? And I’d be even more foolish if I didn’t learn from my mistakes.

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