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Workshop: Chasing the Blues Away

With adolescent depression on the rise, parents told to keep watch.

The numbers are staggering. Studies have shown that nearly 9 percent of all 12- to 16-year-olds experience adolescent depression. Almost 60 percent of adolescents have suicidal thoughts. And one local group is looking to shed light on an issue too often left in the shadows, adolescent depression.

On Monday, about 35 concerned parents, from Herndon and Reston, filed into the Herndon Middle School auditorium to learn more about adolescent depression. The program was the fifth in a series of parenting workshops sponsored by the Greater Herndon Community Coalition and Herndon Pyramid PTAs. The workshop, dubbed "Is My Child Depressed?" was put on as a way of giving parents the tools to identify and recognize depression in their adolescent children.

When the pyramid surveyed parents in 2000 about the issues that they were worried about, adolescent and teenage depression were cited frequently, said Lisa Lombardozzi, the Herndon High PTSA president and the Herndon Middle School PTA president. "Our kids are more troubled than we know," Lombardozzi said, "or, perhaps, more than we want to know."

<b>MANY OF THE PARENTS</b> in the audience were concerned with figuring out the difference between typical teenage angst and atypical teenage depression. "It's a difficult question," said Lombardozzi. "How do you know the difference between a basic moody teenager and a teenager who really needs help. I am not quite sure where that fine line is, that's why we are here."

Michael Greelis, a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, agreed that the line can be blurry, if not confusing. "A lot of times bad behavior is just bad behavior," Greelis acknowledged. "But there is a difference," he said.

Teens who have a shorter temper than usual and are "nasty" about a common request might be exhibiting signs of depression, the counselor said. "Often they are yelling, screaming and bullying," Greelis said. "It's like they become tyrants."

Greelis, in private practice in Herndon, is a former faculty member at George Mason University. He now specializes in adolescents, and their families, with depression, bipolar disorders and other mood disorders. His roster of clients is a diverse cross-section of the area's youth. "It crosses the spectrum from popular kids to loners and high-achievers to low-achievers," he said. "I do, however tend to see kids with some special talent, be it athletics, music, art. Parents can't assume they know their child."

A lot of the patients Greelis sees are some of the area's best and most accomplished students. "They need to recognize just how many hours in the day there are," Greelis said. "I try to show them that it is not really possible to get all they want done. They may be setting their goals too high and sooner or later, probably sooner, they are going to be running on empty."

In many cases, a precipitating action will instigate the depression. Precipitating actions, Greelis said, can be everything from the loss of a loved one to the loss of a pet, sexual assault to psychological abuse and disruptions to the home caused by things like divorce or relocation.

<b>OFTEN TIMES PARENTS</b> refuse to see warning signs in their children. Greelis urged parents to take a proactive approach to their children's mental health. "Don't blame yourself," Greelis told the parents in the audience. "You do, however, need to take responsibility for your child's well-being."

In an interview, Greelis said the stigma around mental health has not gone away. "Often times, parents don't want their children to go on medicines," he said, "because then they will be seen as a failure and they will blame themselves."

If children are getting caught for the bad behavior that should raise a red flag with parents. "If they are so incompetent that they are not able to carry it off without getting caught, then something is probably going on there," he said. "If that bad behavior is coupled with a sudden drop in grades or drastic change in friends, parents should monitor the situation. With boys, you are liable to get chronic agitation and lot more acting up," Greelis said. "Girls just handle it a little better."

In Monday's audience of more than 30 parents, there was only one father. "Men don't like to talk about depression," Greelis said. And like their fathers, Greelis said, adolescent boys are in no rush to talk about it either, he said.

Greelis said that typically, adolescent depression becomes apparent around the age of 14. Dysthemia is like a chronic low grade depression, Greelis said. While it is less frequent, it can be more problematic, because it tends to last for a while.

While the symptoms of depression in adolescents looks very much like it does, adolescents "don't have the same tools to deal with the problems associated with the depression because depression impacts cognitive function."

If treatment isn't sought after the first episode or episodes, children will have a greater likelihood for subsequent episodes throughout their lifespan.

<b>FOR JOHN WERNER</b>, assistant principal at Herndon, there is one tell-tale sign of depression. "Grades are the first thing to go," he said.

"As much time as students spend at school, especially in a pressure environment, teachers and counselors are sometimes the first line of defense."

That is why Greelis recommends parents stay in contact with their son or daughter's teachers, counselors, friend's parents, anyone that sees their child out of their home. "Kids act much different outside of the home," Greelis said. "It's good to get a more complete view of your child."

In his practice, Greelis sees many high-achieving kids and this fact is not lost on Werner. "Our kids have so much stuff going on in their lives, so much pressure. They have so much on their plate that they can sometimes dig themselves in a whole," Werner said. "Like drugs, parents need to know that it is not just one talk with your kid, it's a whole process and kids need to know their parents are there for them."

Werner and Greelis both stressed the importance of early detection. "The earlier the better," Greelis said.

Werner said it is difficult to pull a teenager out of a depression because of their tendency to go to extremes. "We all have our highs and lows, but with teens, their highs are a little bit higher and their lows are a little bit lower," Werner said. "We know how to dig out, they don't always know how."

Often teens will turn to drugs and alcohol, in an effort to mask the pain from their depression or to try and dig out of their hole. "If kids are depressed," Lombardozzi said, "we know that the next logical step, if it hasn't been taken already, is substance abuse and obviously we went to stop that before it begins."

In addition to substance abuse and dependence, teenage boys will often turn to high risk and extreme behaviors, like "driving their dad's Lexus 140 mph down Sunrise Valley Drive."