An obligation for adults to watch, help teens

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Clinically speaking, depression is a diagnosis resulting from feeling very sad, losing interest in day-to-day activities, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, loss of concentration and/or recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, among other things.

If untreated, depression can destroy families, distance friends and ruin careers. And, when depression hits a child, their ability to recover depends on the adults around them paying attention and doing something to help.

Every other year, Maine’s Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services survey the state’s teens about their personal habits, both good and bad.

The results of that survey, which was the subject of a Sun Journal report on Sunday, has some positive news about Maine’s youth, including the fact that they’re smoking and drinking less.

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The report also contained alarming news about teens: They’re struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide.

According to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which was taken last year, 14.6 percent of high-schoolers seriously considered attempting suicide and 16.8 percent of middle-schoolers considered the same.

In real numbers, that’s about 200 of the students at Lewiston High School.

It means, statistically speaking, last year 153 students at Edward Little High School in Auburn thought seriously about committing suicide. At tiny Dirigo High School, 55 students of the 381 there thought the same. And, at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington the survey would indicate 129 students considered killing themselves last year.

In what should be carefree teen years, thousands of Maine teens are struggling to see any point in having a future.

Going by the survey’s statewide average, at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School 183 high-schoolers thought seriously about killing themselves last year.

The danger is more intense at the middle school level.

Of the 635 students attending Lewiston Middle School last year, the survey indicates 106 of them thought seriously about suicide.

At Oxford Hills Middle School, an aging building bustling with children and noise, 94 of those children thought about killing themselves last year.

In Auburn, the number was 86 and at Dirigo it was 44 middle school students, again extrapolating from the survey.

Sadly, in Auburn and Dixfield over the past two years, students did more than think about killing themselves. Several of them actually did it.

Last year, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a requirement that all public school staffers participate in suicide-prevention training, and helped fund the effort by donating $44,000 from his contingency fund for DOE, DHHS and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine to jointly develop that training.

School employees across the state are now actively being trained to watch for signs of depression in teens, which is not an easy task given the natural mood swings of youth.

Auburn Middle School Principal Jim Hand said the trend toward more depression is something the school has been watching for a while and “We’ve been trying to put a ton of programs in place, especially where we’re such a high poverty school.”

Depression is not necessarily a direct result of poverty, but it’s fair to say that poverty-stricken families struggling to buy food and provide clothes and adequate housing for themselves and their children are both financially and emotionally exhausted and may not recognize the symptoms of depression — in themselves or their children — as quickly as possible.

If that recognition doesn’t happen at home, the next best place depression might be recognized is at school, where students spend so much of their time. That doesn’t mean parents, friends and other family members shouldn’t be vigilant, it just means our schools must become more watchful for teens in emotional distress.

This new focus on training is particularly important for schools in Western Maine, which for purposes of the survey include Oxford Hills, Lewiston, Auburn and others, whose students offered some of the greatest number of troubling answers.

For instance, less than half of the students there said they felt they attended a school that cares about kids and encourages them. Those same students felt less safe at school than their peers elsewhere in Maine, ate dinner less often with their families, lived in homes with fewer rules about alcohol and drug use, and were more likely to feel like their parents did not support them.

That so many of these students are more likely to feel hopeless should not be that surprising if they’re not feeling loved, supported or safe at home and in school.

These teens are in trouble and are reliant on the adults around them for help. Implementing programs at school is a terrific and necessary step, but that doesn’t absolve other adults in our children’s lives from responsibility.

As caretakers, we have an obligation to ensure children have emotional stability so they can succeed in school and become productive adults. The alternative is just too awful.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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