Program covers warning signs of depression in teens
In a high school with 1,000 students, 50 students are likely to be suffering from depression.
Major depression is the leading undiagnosed illness among teens, affecting 5 percent of American teenagers, according to Dr. Steven P. Kachmar, M.A., Ph.D., NCSP, supervisor of psychological services at the Northampton Area School District. Of these, only 30 percent will receive any intervention or treatment.
Kachmar made a presentation at Northampton Area High School during The Weller Health Education Center's Adolescent Depression Awareness Program (ADAP) last month.
ADAP is an evidence-based curriculum designed to educate students, parents and teachers about adolescent depression so that more teens can get the help they need.
During the 2012-13 school year, freshman were delivered three school-based sessions furthering their understanding of this serious illness. The parent education component was presented in the high school cafeteria Dec. 5. The session provided an overview of adolescent depression, the signs and symptoms, an overview of treatments and available parent resources and services.
The presentation began with a DVD of the "Larry Boehm's Story" in which a father shared his personal experience of losing his daughter, Abby, to suicide.
Abby enjoyed being alone and always seemed "outside the circle." Her dad considered it shyness and reasoned with his family that "she'll grow out of it." He kept her involved in canoeing, scuba diving and other activities, believing he was "drawing her out." Counselors later told him that those times were "windows of happiness, breaths of fresh air" while she was, in fact, living with undiagnosed chronic depression.
The most serious risk of depression is suicide, which claims 30,000 lives each year and is the third leading cause of death among high school students. It is critical students, parents and teachers learn to identify the symptoms and recognize it as a treatable illness, said Kachmar.
Parents were alerted to the following symptoms: decreased interest or pleasure in activities, withdrawal from family and friends, change in weight and/or sleeping patterns, irritability, aggression, poor scholastic achievement, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, drug/alcohol abuse and thoughts of death.
The illness involves more than feeling sad.
"Everybody is sad at one time or another," Kachmar said. "Don't dismiss or excuse the warning signs when they are for an extended period of time, all day, almost every day. The warnings should be heeded when they are to a marked degree, causing an impairment of some kind."
No one is to blame for depression. Kachmar stated that it is a result of biological plus environmental factors.
"The key to overcoming depression is keeping the protective factors higher than the negatives," he said.
He added that young people are resilient, and that it is important to "increase their level of resilience."
A parent who suspects a child is suffering from depression should contact a mental health professional, Kachmar said. If it is after school hours, seek medical attention at an emergency room, and never leave a child suspected of being suicidal alone.
Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik showed concern on both a professional and personal level.
"It makes me want to put something in place to educate faculty," he said, assuring the audience that "the school district has many, many resources, putting a lot of time and energy into this."
Years ago, a school psychologist was linked only to special education, said Kachmar. That is not the case today. "Teachers are front line," he said. They need to recognize "something's different today; we need to look at this."
During a time of discussion, a concerned parent expressed some frustration that her son "didn't get anywhere with his counselor."
"Ninety percent of therapy is relationship, and that it takes time; there is no quick fix," Kachmar said. "First a relationship is established, then change begins to occur."
Therapy typically takes 26 sessions, or half a year, he said.
ADAP is not a direct assessment or treatment center for individuals, nor is it an opportunity for group therapy or personal disclosure. Weller Center representative Joe Webster explained the Weller Center focuses solely on prevention and is the only one in the entire country trained to teach the program to students.
It does, however, deliver a message of hopefulness, teaching students to recognize depression and get proper treatment.
Webster reported that after the second day at NASD, a student approached him, indicating he was suffering from depression.
"He is now talking to a counselor," Webster said.
Free mental health screening is available through the KidsPeace Bethlehem campus. Counselors can be reached at 610-867-5051.
Free family education and support groups are available through the Bethlehem chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which can be reached at 610-882-2102.