Attended a program last night sponsored by the Mahwah Municipal Alliance-- the subject being teen depression and risk of suicide.
T.J. Sefcik died by suicide December 1st, 2010, at the age of 16.
He came from a loving, supportive home; he had two brothers, one older and one younger; he was a talented athlete and student and by all indications had so much to live for.
The tragedy and horror of suicide is that it doesn't follow a script. More often than not, those kids who die by suicide are the ones that strike the rest of us as privileged, to be envied.
I listened closely to T.J.'s parents, Wendy and Steve, as they described the turmoil that defined their lives as their son began to succumb to the mood swings and depression that caused him to go from loving and sweet to argumentative trouble-maker. And how they have coped in the aftermath, looking out for their other sons and making presentations of this kind to help other parents understand their children's behavior and learn from their story.
Some of the ideas/insights I gleaned:
Learn to be satisfied with the child you have, not the child you think you want. In other words, unconditional love.
Trust that your love and influence is necessary and wanted, even when your kids make you feel the very opposite. Wendy recounts how her habit of coming into son Matt's room every night to tell him she loves him, ask him about his day, confirm her support-- despite what she thought were negative reactions-- are actually treasured by him, and very needed.
Be aware of genetics-- often mood disorders and depression run in families, and instances in family history may indicate higher risk.
Anti-depressants, while they may be life-savers for some, should not be a first-line remedy when a problem is diagnosed. T.J. was medicated, but not until the last six weeks of his life, when his family feels he was likely beyond help from the medications. Every case is different and there is no blanket response or quick fix.
Many of the red flags of depression/suicide-- weight loss, not sleeping, extreme irritability-- can also look a lot like typical teenaged, hormone-influenced behavior. The Big Question-- how do you tell the difference??-- doesn't, unfortunately, have a straight answer. However, Wendy made a point of saying that you should trust your intuition-- no one knows your child as well as you do. If you believe it's more serious than a case of the teen-aged blues, seek professional help.
Finally-- and most importantly- the need for a kid to have a trusted adult to listen to them. Empathetic listening-- without drama, without overreaction should they confide thoughts of depression or hurting themselves-- is absolutely critical to a child's mental and emotional health.
None of this is easy to contemplate, and turning away from tragedy is a very human response. But our kids are just too much at risk too ignore the possibility.
A few years ago I heard a presentation by suicide survivor Jordan Burnham, and wrote about it here:
The kinds of things STEP has us doing-- reframing our view, to appreciate the child we have; learning empathetic listening skills-- are the same things I am hearing over and over from people intimately involved in these tragedies.
Let's learn from them.