When Teenage Angst is Not Just a Phase
by Michael Lisagor
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, adults rarely discussed depression or mental illness. The few times I voiced a concern about my sadness to an adult, I was invariably told, "Oh, Michael, you just need to snap out of it," or some equally dismissive response. My parents, who were, in hindsight, abusive and depressed alcoholics, refused to acknowledge my struggle as being anything other than childhood and later teenage angst.
I grew up too afraid and ashamed to talk about how hurt and hopeless I felt. Illegal drugs became as a self-destructive survival mechanism. It didn't help that I envisioned the mentally ill as being like characters in movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Who would want to join that club?
Starting at 19 years old, a daily spiritual practice became my go-to treatment for my emotional ailments. At some unconscious level, I knew I was depressed. So, my wife, Most Beautiful One (MBO), and I chanted our hearts out to prevent me from falling into an emotional abyss and to maintain a higher state of life. This worked for many years. I realize now it would have been even better if an adult could have helped teenage me get professional therapy and medicine. But, who knew?
In 1998, a few years after MBO was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I could no longer control my emotions and was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as being clinically depressed. Even though this was painful to hear, I wasn't really surprised. I had always struggled with depression and anxiety as well as dangerous moments of total despair. I had a real fear of ending up in a mental institution although it was a relief to be told that I didn't have an imaginary illness I could just "snap out of."
So, I added psychotherapy and antidepressants to my regular chanting routine. 20 years later, I believe I have basically overcome my clinical depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. A lifetime of inner darkness has left the building!
It saddens me that young people I listen to or hear about are still reluctant to talk with their parents, teachers or friends about their serious inner turmoil. Making it difficult, is that these teens can appear to be relatively happy when around others. It was that way for me. I assumed the external role of being the "funny" one. In this way, both clinical and even situational depression can be quite insidious.
Almost all young people struggle with getting good grades, peer pressure, fear of making a mistake, and balancing school and extracurricular activities. Not having someone to talk to only exacerbates their stress and, for some, can manifest as serious depression and anxiety.
There are numerous other reasons why parents might miss or dismiss their teenager's emotional struggles. These include their teenager's resistance to talking with them; being too consumed with the drama and activities in their own lives to regularly communicate with their teenager; embarrassed or unwilling to acknowledge having a teenager with emotional problems; uncomfortable with the terms `depression' and `anxiety' for what is seemingly just "typical teenage angst;" unwilling or unable to admit they are a contributing or major cause of the teenager's problems; or believing therapy and antidepressants are a "cop-out" and only for the very seriously disturbed.
Ironically, these same adults would never deny the existence of a young person's diabetes or suggest they not take insulin. They need to understand that the depression and anxiety that are plaguing their teenager are just as legitimate and treatable as other medical ailments.
It takes regular communication and compassionate intervention from parents, teachers and friends to prevent a teenager's angst from turning into violence against his or herself or others. Young people are precious. Let's do our best to self-reflect, stay aware and work together so we don't lose any more!