National Alliance on Mental Illness
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When Teens Face Tough Times, Community Support Can Help

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

Full of stress and anxiety, the teenage years are ones only a handful of us would like to relive, and those of us in the midst of them face challenging times of personal growth.

Whether you're constantly arguing with your parents because they "just don't understand you," angry about that new pimple that showed up on the day you finally got the courage to talk to the girl or boy you liked or worried about the big calculus test you have on Thursday (only hours before the homecoming dance), every second of the day can seem to be unyielding in it's attempt to make life ever more painful.

For some children and adolescents, stress is handled with relative ease. But for others, when coupled with biological factors, events can take their toll and possibly lead to the development of a mental illness. According to a recent study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about one in five teens in the United States experiences a mental disorder severe enough to impact their daily activities. Stress is considered a "trigger" for genetic predisposition to serious mental illness, including major depression-which is more than sadness from an episodic event. According to NIMH, more than one out of every 10 children aged 13-18 have experienced a depressive disorder.

Data just released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), reveals that some 2 million adolescents experienced a bout of major depression in 2009 alone. However, only about a third of them got any help handling their feelings of sadness, anxiety and despair.

Depression also carries a risk of suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of children in grades 9-12 seriously considered suicide. Each year, 4,400 Americans aged 10 to 24 die by suicide, while 149,000 more seek emergency care for self-inflicted injuries.

While teens across the country face much of the same struggles, there are some specific factors that increase the risk of depression and suicide. Social factors compound stress, adding to genetic vulnerability. They need to be considered in discussing teen depression and suicide prevention as part of the total picture.

For example, a new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that certain external, social factors led to increased numbers of suicide attempts, particularly among members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning (GLBTQ) community.

The new study revealed that suicide attempts by GLBTQ teens were 20 percent higher in communities that are less supportive of homosexuality than those in more supportive social environments. Of the teens surveyed, roughly five percent identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Of those students, nearly 22 out of every hundred said that they had attempted suicide in the last year. Those who self-identified as "straight," attempted suicide at a rate of four out of every hundred. Supportive social factors are still important for heterosexual students. Within that group, nine percent fewer suicides were reported when they were surrounded by more supportive environments.

For GLBTQ teens specifically, the study identified social factors in local communities which seemed to decrease the number of suicide attempts, were:

  • Percentage of same-sex adult couples
  • Presence of gay-straight alliances in schools
  • Anti bullying and antidiscrimination policies that specifically protected GLBTQ students

NAMI offers many tremendous resources for teens and families with teens struggling with depression and suicide. NAMI's Family Guide on Adolescent Depression is a great source for beginning to learn more about the causes, treatments and other aspects of depression in children.