Summit addresses mental health of teens

Petula Dvorak
Columnist June 19

Why?

Because they got a C on a test.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Because they hated the way they looked in a T-shirt.

Because they thought they’d never get into a good college.

Those are some of the reasons kids from good families, going to great schools and living in one of the nation’s wealthiest areas gave for wanting to kill themselves.

When six Fairfax county youths who have wrestled with depression and flirted with suicide spoke their minds on a stage in front of 200 people last week , it was the right thing to do, they said, especially after closing out another school year with four suicides among their peers.

One boy from Langley High School talked about that night — July 23 — when he decided to die.

“Midnight passed and I was still awake, thoughts of suicide floating around in my head,” said the 18-year-old.

“Two a.m. came, and I decided to steal my brother’s car and go for a drive, with the intention of crashing and killing myself,” he said.

He got on the Beltway, pushed the car past 80 mph and jerked the steering wheel into the barrier wall. “I came out without a scratch,” he said.

And went immediately into several weeks of therapy.

He had anxiety, depression, worried about his clothes, using deodorant, doing poorly in a class. Common teen stuff.

And yet, “I thought about ending it all, every day,” he said.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among American teens.

And this week’s report from Harvard Medical School explained how irrational fear may contribute. The report concluded that the extreme warning labels on antidepressants may have backfired, scaring children and teens away from medications that might have helped them while suicides increased by 20 percent.

Parents are just scared. Many are battling with the idea that their kids could be mentally ill.

That’s all part of the stigma, shame and reluctance to acknowledge that there’s a problem.

The Virginia youths who spoke about their bouts with depression all said they were ashamed to tell anyone what was going on.

“Not talking about these issues is a crucial element of deaths by suicide,” said Lauren Anderson, whose popular little brother was 17 when he killed himself five years ago. “And why do we not talk about these issues? Well, shame, embarrassment plague our minds when we think of depression, anxiety and self-harm.”

Anderson, who runs the Josh Anderson Foundation, worked with the Safe Community Coalition to organize the teen-to-teen summit.

The kids onstage represented the region’s highest-caliber schools: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Langley, McLean and W.T. Woodson high schools.

And they’ve all been rattled by recent suicides.

Langley had two suicides in February, then the same thing happened at Woodson. Woodson has had six suicides — all boys — in the past three years.

Those deaths brought back the pain, the memories, the constant “why” for Anderson and her family.

So they got the group together to try to explain some of the why.

And it was kind of scary.

Because it seemed like such typical teen stuff: feeling insecure in gym class, worried about grades, stressed about college, a bad romantic relationship, too many expectations.

That’s what makes it so hard.

One of the panelists wore a beauty queen crown and sash. She recently was named a county junior-miss-something, is the president of clubs at school, plays sports, has friends, is a pretty 17-year-old.

But inside? She’d get a bad grade on her test and it would send her into depression, panic and anxiety attacks, swimming in thoughts of harming herself.

She knew it was wrong. And it took her two years to get therapy.

“Kids need to have the tools in that moment of darkness, in that moment of need, to help themselves,” Anderson said. “They need that resilience to reach out, to call for help, to tell a friend. We need to do that on our own.”

What can the parents do?

“What this county needs is some courageous parents to step up to the plate . . . and kind-of end this, like, college résumé arms race,” said Greg Myers, psychologist at TJ, which is one of the nation’s top schools and known for its competitive admissions process.

It’s such a pressure cooker that counselors recently introduced therapy dogs and yoga to try to calm the hyper-achievers and teach them how to be kids.

The parents at the summit that night applauded wildly when Myers said this.

“It feels like it’s spinning out of control at times. And the cost is our students’ mental health,” he said. “The cost is that our students are not learning how to live their life with healthy behaviors.”

And in the end, a healthy kid — not a shiny résumé — should be the true goal of parenting.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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