Colorado sees uptick in teenagers reporting signs of depression
Every year, Northridge High School business and marketing teacher Rob Norwood strays from the curriculum for one day.
In a lecture he calls Choices and Consequences, Norwood talks to his students about the choices they can make in life and the consequences that can result. One of the choices he makes a point to talk about is suicide.
One motivation for Norwood to begin giving the lecture was the suicide of 19-year-old Matt Walling in 2005. Over his 13 years at the school, Norwood said he can recall seven or eight former students who have taken their own lives, but Walling’s death hurt him the most.
“I don’t to this day understand it,” he said. “He was such a neat, hard-working, honest young man.”
Walling’s death also stands out to Norwood because on Valentine’s Day in 2005, about two weeks after the teenager shot himself, Sarah Munger, Walling’s 19-year-old, grief-stricken fiancée, hanged herself in the young couple’s apartment.
Walling had already graduated from Northridge, but Norwood kept in touch with him and considered him a friend. Walling would even work on Norwood’s car on occasion. Norwood said he believes the tragedy could have been prevented, if only he or someone else had known Walling was struggling.
“I wish I could have talked to Matt before he took his own life, but I didn’t get that opportunity,” Norwood said. “We would have found a way to make it right.”
Teen depression is a growing problem in Colorado, according to the Colorado Health Foundation’s 2015 Colorado Health Report Card.
According to a survey of Colorado teens cited by the report, nearly one in four teenagers reported feeling so sad or hopeless every day for two consecutive weeks in the past year that they stopped doing their usual activities. Teen girls were twice as likely as boys to report feeling depressed.
That ratio of self-reported teen depression dropped Colorado from fourth-best in the nation in 2014 to ninth this year.
Recognizing signs of depression in teenagers can be difficult, said Kimberly Pratt, a clinician for suicide education and support services at North Range Behavioral Health, 1300 N. 17th Ave. in Greeley, because depression manifests differently in teens than it does in adults.
“Especially in teens, depression often shows up as anger, irritability and frustration,” she said. “With emotional pain, we can’t see it. We don’t know if a teenager is just being a teenager or if they’re really hurting.”
There’s also a stigma that accompanies mental health issues, Pratt said, which causes people to try to hide that they’re suffering. That stigma is something Pratt is actively working to inhibit.
“One thing we try to get across to people is it’s important to treat mental illness the same way we treat physical illness,” she said. “If your kid came to you with a sprained arm — even if you weren’t sure if it was broken or just sprained — if you see them in pain, you’re going to take them to the hospital. That’s what North Range is there for.”
Conversations with people who show signs of depression go a long way toward getting them help, Pratt said. In fact, she said, asking them flat out if they’re contemplating suicide is a good way to broach the subject.
“The most important thing a parent can do is talk to their child about it,” Pratt said. “If they’re not willing to talk to their parents, find someone for them to talk to. It really does keep our teenagers safe, for the most part.”
Both Pratt and Norwood said it’s also important for parents to have regular conversations with their children about what’s going on in their lives, as well as the lives of their friends and fellow students.
“I think as a parent the worst phone call you could ever have would be the death of a child,” Norwood said. “You need to have that acute sense as a parent that something doesn’t seem right with your child. You need to ask the tough questions, and you can’t be afraid to hurt their feelings. That could be a matter of saving their lives.”
Norwood said teachers have the same obligation to know how students are holding up, though he said it’s easy for them to overlook the signs of depression.
“I love every kid I teach and every kid who walks through the halls,” he said. “I see the good in every kid that walks past me. But every person you meet is dealing with something we have no idea about unless you ask them.”
Norwood said he often thinks about what circumstances could have possibly driven Walling to take his own life 10 years ago. Eventually, he said, he’ll get the answer.
“Someday I’m going to get a chance to ask him why,” he said.
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