By Anna Woelfel
One in five teens has struggled with an invisible illness. It hampered their ability to make friends, do their homework, participate in class, and sleep. It even made them more likely to catch a bug.
Ask any health specialist and she will tell you that this illness is depression. Ask any parent or teacher the same question, and he may not be able to answer it so easily. Yet there are many Silicon Valley resources that can make a difference in depressed students’ lives.
The first step is to recognize the symptoms. A depressed teen may show unusual tiredness, anxiety, anger, changes in appetite, and irritability. Uniquely in teens, said Mario Victor, a clinical social worker at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center, “The single biggest distinction is irritability. In teens, you are more likely to see anger instead of sadness.”
This distinction is important, according to Victor, since these symptoms can easily be assumed to be teen angst or anger management problems.
School work is also often affected. Difficulty focusing is associated with depression and can make school that much harder, Victor said.
“When there are life problems, what are you focused on: the algebra problem or the problems at home?” he asked.
Like most people, teens are likely to approach their informal connections first for help, explained Elena Tindall, the suicide prevention coordinator for Santa Clara County. This means that friends, parents, counselors, or other people close to teens have a lot of power, she said.
“A very important resource is having a group of friends that know the difference between getting someone help and ratting out a friend,” Tindall said.
When schools in the Bay Area began experiencing issues with student mental health, many installed programs to help.
Yukari Salazar was one of the proponents for bringing a mental health program to Cupertino High School. While teaching her seventh year of Japanese at Cupertino High, Salazar brought Challenge Day, a two-day program that promotes self-worth and open discussions, to campus.
“It basically comes down to supporting the kids in a nonacademic way,” Salazar said. “And the teachers and parents now see that this program is worthwhile.”
Academics usually are the main concern of schools, not mental health. “One teacher asked me why I was opening a can of worms when we didn’t have to,” Salazar said.
The changes seen in school are noticeable, according to Salazar. She said students are more united and more accepting of one another.
There are multiple resources available to teens. Counseling and group therapy are usually paid by health insurance. There also are many hotlines and websites, including Reachout.com, Onyourmind.net, and Yourlifeyourvoice.org.
Often teens with mental health issues need help more than once. They may struggle for months, and their academic and social lives suffer right alongside them.
With stakes so high, Santa Clara County’s Tindall emphasized the importance of stable care. “Mental health needs to be a long-term effort,” she said, “not just a one-off.”
Anna Woelfel is a student at Santa Clara University. She produced this piece as part of a journalism class taught by Sally Lehrman and as part of a collaborative project with Patch on science in Silicon Valley.