Depression Questions and Answers
By: Elizabeth Robinson, MA, LPC
As parents and youth workers involved with teens who are struggling with depression, it's important to know what you can do and what role you can play in supporting and caring for the students.
I’m concerned that my teen or a teen I know well may have symptoms of teen depression. What should I do?
You should start by simply asking them. Ask them if they are OK, and give them a chance to open up to you. If they don’t share, you can gently point out the symptoms you have noticed. Remind them that you love them and that you won’t judge them for whatever they are struggling with. Despite this love and assurance, it can still be incredibly hard for teens to open up to their parents. If they don’t want to talk to you, suggest other options for them—maybe the guidance counselor or another adult at school, your pastor, a close family friend, or a professional mental health counselor.
If they refuse all of these options, it becomes a judgment call for you. You can always bring them to a counselor’s office, whether they want to be there or not. Many of my patients come to see me reluctantly. Of course, things tend to start out more smoothly when the teenager is actively seeking help, but it’s not impossible to develop that relationship with a crabby teen.
Another option is watchful waiting on your part. Sometimes, teens just need time and space to get up the courage to open up to you. You can decide how much space and for how long. The exception to this would be if you have any reason to believe that your teen may be in danger of killing himself or herself. If your teen is making statements about that or wanting to be dead, it is definitely time to seek out some help. I will explore how to do that further in my answer to the next question.
If a teen mentions suicide to me, how seriously do I need to take it, and what steps should I take?
You should absolutely take it seriously. Often parents or other adults think that this child would never actually kill himself or herself. Unfortunately, I have seen many of these teens after they have attempted suicide. Teens are often very good at hiding the severity of their symptoms, so when they make a statement about killing themselves, it comes as a shock and feels impossible that they could actually mean it. You need to accept the possibility that they are actually having serious thoughts about killing themselves.
As in the previous question, the first thing you need to do is talk to your teen. You can ask them about it directly; it won’t put any ideas in their head. Repeat after me: “I can tell you have been having a hard time. Do you ever think about actually doing something to kill yourself?” It’s important to accept any answer they give you calmly and without judgment. If you seem like you are panicking, they are going to stop sharing with you. It’s important to assess whether they are overwhelmed and struggling or seriously thinking about acting on these thoughts in this moment. It’s OK to ask them if they have thought about how they will kill themselves. Ask if they have any plans or a timeframe to act on these thoughts. Ask why they haven’t acted on them sooner. Ask if there is anyone they can talk to if they think they might actually act on them. If you have any doubts about their ability to remain safe, you should seek medical help. You can call a psychiatric hospital or take your teen to the ER if you feel that is necessary. These are good options in a crisis situation.
If you believe your teen is able to remain safe, you should seek out a counselor for them. You might start with having them talk to the guidance counselor at school. The guidance counselor is likely to be able to see them more quickly than you might be able to get them in to see an outpatient mental health counselor. Then you should seek out a counselor for them as soon as possible. A good resource for your teen or yourself is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.TALK (8255). Your teen can call the lifeline themselves, or you could call for help in dealing with a suicidal crisis for your teen.
What can a Christian counselor offer that a parent or youth worker may not be able to?
There are several ways a Christian counselor can help your teen. One of the first things we counselors have going for us is experience. This is likely the first time you have had to talk to your teen about depression and suicide. As a counselor, I have talked with many, many teens about suicide. I know the questions to ask, and I have the experience to help you and your teen create a safety plan that will work for them and for you. A counselor can also help assess whether your child needs more care, such as admission to an inpatient unit.
Another advantage that a counselor has is that they are not you. As hard as it is to accept, no matter how close you are with your teen, sometimes they just can’t open up to you. Sometimes it takes someone who is removed from their life, someone they don’t have to see at the dinner table or worry about letting down. Someone with whom they can talk comfortably about this difficult topic. Additionally, while a good counselor cares deeply about your child, they are more able to be objective about what your child might need. Plus, counselors go to school. A lot of school. We have specialized training in listening and helping teens learn how to change their thinking and actions in order to improve their mood. All of the reasons that a Christian counselor can help do not in any way replace your role as parent or youth worker. You are also important in your teen’s life. You are a part of the team of people who will help see your teen through this difficult time.
What role can I have in walking with a teen through teen depression?
As a parent: You can love them. And listen to them. Many times when teens are depressed, they feel isolated, either because of choices they have made or circumstances in which they find themselves. Being there to love and listen to them is a huge way to help them. This may mean changing how you have been relating to them. Ask them what you can do, or how you can listen to them better. They may have a specific answer for you, so try to make that change if you can. They may also not be sure how you can help them. This is a great area to talk to their counselor about. Together, you can come up with a plan or ideas to try.
Another important part of your role as a parent is monitoring your teen for safety. Whether or not and on what level this is necessary depends on your teen’s situation and is another great topic to discuss with their therapist. You may need to make hard decisions or decisions that your teen may not like. One of the joys of parenting, right? And always, remember that you are their parent. If something feels wrong, if you have concerns, even if you aren’t sure why, trust your gut. And most importantly, pray. Pray for your teen. Pray specifically for the healing they need in their life. Pray for yourself, for wisdom and discernment.
As a youth worker: As a youth worker you have a very special role. You don’t have to be the parent, but you are an important adult in this teen’s life. You can be someone for the teen to talk to, another safe adult who loves them. It may be easier and feel safer to talk to you than their parents. And as a youth worker, you are in a position to share God’s love and Word with this struggling young teen. Many of the teens I work with complain that people have made them feel that they should just have more faith or be able to simply pray away their problems. Validate their feelings and help them use their faith as a means of support. Often when we are depressed, God feels very far away. The teen may have questions or even be angry with God. Let them express these things, and help them find a way to draw nearer to God. And pray. Pray for healing. Pray for their faith. Pray that God will use you to show the teen his love.
Elizabeth Robinson, MA, LPC: Liz Robinson joined WLCFS in 2013. She received her BA in psychology from Cardinal Stritch University and her MA in clinical psychology from the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology. Prior to joining WLCFS, Liz spent five years working in a local psychiatric hospital's child and adolescent day treatment program. There Liz provided individual, group, and family therapy to children and adolescents with a focus on depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.