As far back as I can remember, I’ve had to deal with depression. Some periods in my life have been easier than others, particularly my younger years. This is one of the most important reasons why I love to write fiction for young adults—because there weren’t many authors writing about the things I struggled with as pre-teen or even a teenager. Hell, I was hard-pressed to find stuff like that written for adults. You see, I grew up in a time where the stigma for mental illness was much bigger. Going to therapy was taboo, and you certainly didn’t talk about your problems with your family—at least that’s the environment I had to deal with growing up.

And here we are today, in 2022, a time where you’d be challenged to find someone who has some sort of mental health diagnosis. I don’t see this to be patronizing; I say this because it’s the truth. And I’m glad we’re getting to that place, but we still have a long way to go.

One thing I’ve noticed about how my depression has progressed today is that it can change the person you see in the mirror. The past decade has been a time of resilience for me because I’ve become more self-aware, and so I think this makes me more open to see where I still need to go in my life.

I look at old pictures of myself, and sometimes I wonder where that woman went. These old pictures show a younger woman who only thought she was sure of herself and confident of what she was capable of, but I think I was lying to myself. Now that I can see myself with more clarity today, the masks have dropped, and I see that ugliness that was lurking inside: depression.

From time to time, I will write about things that have been heavily researched, but this is not one of those times. Today, I write from my personal experience.

Here is the hard truth: depression is hell. It changes us in every way you can imagine. In some ways, it changes us positively, and in others, it might change us negatively.

If you’re a pre-teen, teenager, or parent of someone struggling with depression . . .

Please understand that it does get better if you don’t ignore it. Mind you, I don’t think it helps to obsess over it or use it as an excuse to shirk away your responsibility for living your life the way it needs to be. But it should be acknowledged, because if it’s left too long to its own devices, it can tear apart who you are, destroy your relationships, break apart your families, and drive you to an early death.

So, what do you do? Here are some things I wish I had known when I was younger [suggestions for parents of depressed teens in brackets]:

  1. Journal like crazy. I know it sounds silly, but it does really help to write things down. Writing has been incredibly therapeutic for me, and if I had been consistent with it throughout my entire life, I think I’d be that much better off today. I have chunks of my life I don’t remember because of how my mental health has traumatized me, and it has really changed how I connect with who I am. [To encourage your children to journal, you can do this as a family, though you don’t need to share what you write. Sit down for thirty minutes every night before bed and journal together. If your son or daughter want to share what they’ve written, that decision should be up to them. If they don’t feel safe doing so, you can always ask them how it made them feel to write it down. I encourage you to share one thing that you wrote down to show your family that everyone struggles with something from time to time. This could make them feel less alone.]
  2. Get up and do some physical activity. No, this won’t make the depression go away, but it will give you a sense of accomplishment if you can do something physical for thirty minutes every day. It will also help you create healthy habits that will stick with you through adulthood. [Please don’t believe “experts” when they try to tell that exercise can cure depression. Yes, it can often make us feel better, but it is not a cure. However, once the symptoms of depression have gotten to a manageable level, engaging in physical activity should help keep them in a positive mindset. It will also encourage them to keep at it if it’s something you do together as a family.]
  3. Do not hesitate to see a therapist or psychiatrist when the depression symptoms start interfering with your life. This is one of the most important things you can do when you feel your depression taking over your life. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you; it just means you might need a little help to find joy or meaning in your life . . . because depression is really good at robbing us of that. [Parents, this doesn’t mean your child will need to be medicated. It simply means that they are struggling, and they need some additional guidance to make sure they can be successful in life. And even if their doctor recommends medication, that is a decision you can make together as a family. And while a primary care physician or a pediatrician can offer a diagnosis, I highly recommend seeing a professional psychiatrist for the final determination. When my teenage son was first diagnosed with ADHD at the age of five, we’d been given several other diagnoses that ended up not being true when he was older. If you feel you need to, don’t feel like your doctor will judge you for wanting a second opinion. It is your right—and your job—to advocate for your children. Never apologize for that.]
  4. You might need extra care when you’re experiencing a depressive episode. This does not mean you are bad or stupid or can’t take care of yourself—it simply means you don’t have the tools right now to understand how important self-care is when you’re depressed. It’s okay to ask for help, and you should never be made to feel less for needing help. [Check in with your child if you suspect they might be struggling to function. When they’re depressed, they might have issues with everyday tasks, like homework, showering, cleaning up after themselves, and personal hygiene. These are things you might need to remind them to do if they’re going through a phase where their depression is affecting them negatively.]
  5. Read a book (or watch a television show) that lifts you up. When I’m struggling, I like to watch old videos of Robin Williams to get me laughing, but it will probably be something different for you. Is there someone out there who inspires you to think positively about your life? If not, maybe you can ask a friend for recommendations for something fun or inspirational to watch or read. [You can always suggest a family movie night made up of your child’s favorite shows or movies to help lift their mood a bit. Or maybe there’s a fun activity—like playing a board game, going shopping, or visiting the zoo—your family can do together that your child will love.]

Take a long, hard look in the mirror. What do you see? If you feel disconnected when you look at the person in the mirror, maybe one of these activities can help you see past the way depression changes the way you see yourself. It doesn’t have to be a hard activity—it’s often the small, simple things that can make a huge difference.

And always remember: it does get better if you do the work.

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