Let’s Get Talking About Feelings

call for help

Call (214) 828-1000 to speak to a volunteer at the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas for free and confidential help 24-hours a day.

When a tragedy strikes, we can’t stay silent. I have given much thought, much prayer as to how to write this editorial. In the end, the only place I can start is by sharing my story.

I was a proud University Park Panther, a Highland Park Raiders basketball player, and an editor-in-chief of The Bagpipe at Highland Park High School. I excelled in art, history, and english classes. I made good grades, did well on my SATs, and went to a good college. I did what you’re supposed to.

But I also suffered from a disease I didn’t always feel I could tell people about – depression. That disease would consume most of my adolescent life. It is the thing I remember most about growing up. And I’m not the only one.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s first comprehensive report on children’s mental health in 2013 reported that 2.1 percent of children aged 3-17 years experience depression, and 1 out of 5 experienced a mental disorder (study compiled from data from 2005-11). The National Center for Health Statistics found that from 2009-12, 7.6 percent of Americans aged 12 and older suffered depression.

From the time I turned nine, my world would never be the same. To hear it told by my parents, grandparents, and therapists, my depression didn’t start when my mom had her stroke in 1999, but to me the beginning has always been tied to that

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says “Depression has no single cause. Both genetics and the environment play a role, and some children may be more likely to become depressed. Depression in children can be triggered by a medical illness, a stressful situation, or the loss of an important person. Children with behavior problems or anxiety also are more likely to get depressed. Sometimes, it can be hard to identify any triggering event.”

I am a perfectionist. I will always struggle with anxiety. I am prone to self-doubt, issues with control, and distorted body image. In the 2013 study, the CDC found that: “Persons with mental disorders frequently have more than one type of disorder, with an estimated 40% of children with one mental disorder having at least one other mental disorder.”

When the stroke happened, I began a slow spiral downward. But because I was a child, I had no vocabulary to explain the feeling of loss, guilt, grief, anger, betrayal, and hurt that filled me.

I did what every Barbie and Ken doll in the Park Cities did and faked it. I faked a smile. faked strength, and faked that I was okay with this fate that had been dealt me. Until my family noticed.

The AACAP urges parents to remember that in children: “an increase in irritability or even complaints of boredom may be more noticeable than sadness. Children also may have more physical complaints, particularly if the child does not have the habit of talking about how he or she feels.”

advice from a professional

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Catherin Roberts has been helping families in Dallas for 30 years. Here’s what she has to say.

Q: What are the most common mental illnesses in Dallas?
A: Depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, and bipolar disorder

Q: What advice do you have for parents who are worried ?
A: Get help. I can’t stress it enough. A change in your child’s behavior is the biggest thing to watch out for. If you have a child that is usually quiet and suddenly becomes rambunctious and angry, it could be a sign of depression. A loss of appetite or an increase in hunger is also another sign. Mental illnesses could be a result of being bullied or going through a traumatic experience.

Being that ADD/ADHD is a common mental illness, the obvious signs (hyperactive) don’t usually show right away. Not all children who have ADD are hyperactive and it’s usually the teachers that pick up on it more quickly than the parents.

Q: Do affluent areas have more or less incidents?
A: I have as many affluent patients as any other class. Being affluent makes no difference. Yes, there is a stigma that prevents people from seeking help and it affects everyone. Something that has become more common is many people won’t seek help because families consider seeing a therapist as taboo.

Q: What local resources/support groups do you recommend?
A: Child guidance centers and/or hospital out-patient programs. I also recommend if you are already seeing a therapist, it should be that therapist that provides you with treatment. You are already comfortable with that person and they already know about your illness.

You can reach Dr. Roberts at 214-553-5501.

I was hospitalized at age 10 for depression and suicidal thoughts at Children’s Medical Center. There I was prescribed my first round of antipsychotics and antidepressants.

My best friends knew. But like many sufferers, I gradually pushed them away. How could they understand?

According to the AACP: “When they are depressed, children may lose friends and family members, and fall behind at school. … What’s worse, untreated depression can progress lead youth to think about suicide. It is also important to note that, once someone has one episode of depression, they are more likely to get depressed in the future.”

I withdrew from the things that made me happy because I didn’t feel I deserved them. I quit ballet, cheerleading, and soccer. I started sleeping all the time. I was late to school every day – the days I showed up. I gained weight and gradually came to think I deserved to feel the way I did, be the way I was, and look the way I did.

All the while I was running through the motions of life and recovery. I went to therapy once a week. I’m told by my therapist now that in those first years I mostly talked about shoes, celebrities, and movies, with maybe five minutes a session dedicated to what I was actually feeling.

I took my medicines, mostly. I felt so dead on them, so controlled by their sedating effects, that I would often skip and have manic periods of highs and lows.

I went on that way for four years. I would cry myself to sleep. Wake up at 3 a.m. and wander around the house. Read. Cry. Fall asleep. Journal about how I felt alone and do nothing to change it. The knot I felt in my stomach was sometimes the only thing that reminded me I was alive.

And then a switch turned. I decided the summer after seventh grade that I wanted to live. I started taking my meds on time. I joined the basketball team, started studying journalism, washed my hair, changed my clothes, and started watching what I ate.

By the time I reached high school I thought I’d figured it all out. But the suffering continued, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. Everything seemed harder than it did for my friends: getting up in the morning, putting a smile on my face, and spending time with friends. I was surviving, not living. It would take a long time before I learned how to live.

I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to die, wanted to give in. And I am thankful I lived; I am thankful everyday that I am here.

In college one of my best friends brothers died from his depression. It was a wake up call to me that if I was ever going to heal, I would have to actually use those coping skills they teach you in therapy. I would also have to accept a very important point — depression is my disease.

I am in remission. I have been now for five years. I still have bad days, weeks, and months, but I’ve stopped having bad years. I choose to share this with you now because most mental illnesses are curable, treatable conditions.

But we have a problem.

According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 10 and 14, and second among those 15 to 34. In Texas, suicide is the second leading cause of death of 15- to 19-year-olds.

That means that enough of us aren’t talking about mental illnesses or receiving treatment. Every death is tragic. Every death from depression, anorexia, bulimia, et al. is unnecessary.

We need to talk about this frankly. I survived. I am a lucky one. I survived, because for some reason I was able to and the treatment worked.

The Park Cities can sometimes feel like Stepford. Pressure to conform to a standard of perfection is real. For us perfectionists, it can be a dangerous place.  It doesn’t need to be.

We all have a list of those we’ve lost. That list doesn’t need to grow. Open your minds, open your hearts, open your mouths, and speak to each other. The best support system in the world can be found in the Park Cities, it just hasn’t always been employed to address these illnesses.

Next month we will write about the Grant Halliburton Foundation, a group that is changing how families, schools, and organizations speak about depression and suicide.

In May we will revisit the life of Elisa McCall, who would have been 40 this year. She died on March 17, 1996. Many of you will remember the Highland Park grad, her brief life, and her outstanding legacy – The Elisa Project. We will delve into how the project has changed how we view eating disorders and the work there still is to do. We will also be reposting on parkcitiespeople.com our 1996 series which included her journal entries.

We hope now, as we did then, that you can understand that now is the time to act. For every girl and boy, for every mom, dad, and friend, we want you to know you are not alone. You are loved. You are worthy of living.

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