Over the course of more than a year reporting on “The Inner Pandemic,” a new multi-part Times project that explores the mental health of teens, I have had the opportunity to hear families and teens share intimate accounts of self-harm, suicide, anxiety, and depression. They were helping me do the detective work to understand the experience of a young generation in deep crisis.
But somewhere along the line, I realized that these families were doing their own brave detective work. They were participating in the journalistic process to try to make sense of what was happening in their own homes, either for themselves or for their children.
I saw a telling example last year in a small town in upstate New York. I was sitting in a restaurant with my reporter’s notebook in hand, reviewing my notes, when a waitress approached and asked what I was doing. I told her where I worked and that I was reporting on adolescent mental health.
“You should talk to my daughter,” she said.
The next day, I met with her and her teenage daughter, who had recently spent time at an inpatient treatment center for anxiety and depression. As the girl sat eating potato chips, she told the story of her struggle, her mother sitting next to her and listening intently.
Your story gave me pause. She had been hospitalized and treated, but nothing stood out to me as the cause of her intense anxiety and depression. I’d heard enough stories like hers to realize something was missing. Then the little girl turned to her mother and asked, “Would you mind if we spoke alone?”
His mother agreed and left. The teenager then revealed intense personal details of her struggle that she was not yet ready to share with her mother for fear of causing concern. The mother later told me that she felt something good – “something very therapeutic” – coming from the interview. The pieces she heard confirmed what her daughter had told her, and my involvement with the family and past reporting helped her to better understand the problem, she told me.
“I swore I knew my daughter like the back of my hand,” she said. She still struggles for complete answers. “Looks like if you get enough pieces, you can put the pieces together. I am far from putting the whole puzzle together.”
In conversation after conversation, I became something of a vessel for teens and parents to share their pain and confusion, not just with me, but with each other, and hear their own voices.
Not everyone could identify the cause of the pain. One father described the last lucid words his daughter said to him before she died in the intensive care unit after a suicidal overdose: “’I can see colors,’” she told him. Our conversation took place just two weeks after her death. Dad sobbed and thanked me for listening, but it was clear that he mostly needed to hear and process.
Another father, a mother, shared with me the painful details of her daughter’s struggle with anxiety, depression and a suicide attempt. She wanted to know: What was I learning from experts who study adolescent mental health? Why were so many teenagers suffering these days?
How to help teens struggling with mental health
Recognize the signs. Anxiety and depression are different issues, but they share some indicators. Look for changes in a young person’s behavior, such as a lack of interest in eating or altered sleep patterns. A teenager in distress may express excessive worry, hopelessness, or deep sadness.
A teenager was gripped by the terror that a sexual encounter he had would become known and his life would be ruined. He didn’t tell his parents, he said; he carried his fear like a ticking time bomb. He just needed to tell someone and ask himself aloud what to do.
In all, I spoke to dozens of young people, some in brief conversations that informed my thinking but will not appear in this series of stories. I talked to others over many months, as in the case of M, whom I met a year ago and who shared her story in one of the first articles in the series. M has always been blunt, at one point revealing that they’ve started to self-harm again; I told M that I would need to share this information with their mother, with their consent, and I did.
After each conversation, I thanked the teens and parents for sharing so much of themselves. The most frequent response was: I’m telling you this so you can help someone else deal with these things.
Some wanted to vent their anger on a medical system they felt was not equipped to handle the crisis. They wanted a measure of validation and fairness. But as much as that, I think, they spoke to me because they wanted to try to understand and heal themselves.