Over the course of more than a year of reporting “The Inner Pandemic,” a new, multi-part Times project exploring teens’ mental health, I had the opportunity to listen to families and teens sharing frighteningly intimate stories of self-harm, suicide , anxiety and depression. They helped me carry out 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 participated in the journalistic process to try to make sense of what was happening in their own home, whether it was for themselves or 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 me and asked what I was doing. I told her where I worked and that I reported on the mental health of young people.
“You should talk to my daughter,” she said.
The next day, I met her and her teenage daughter, who had recently spent time in a 24-hour treatment center for anxiety and depression. While the girl sat and snacked on french fries, she told the story of her struggle, with her mother sitting next to her and listening intently.
Her story gave me a break. She had been hospitalized and treated, but nothing particularly stood out to me as the cause of her intense anxiety and depression. I had heard a sufficient number of stories like hers to realize that something was missing. Then the girl turned to her mother and asked, “Would you mind if we talked alone?”
Her mother said yes and stepped outside. The teenager then revealed intense personal details about her struggle that she had not yet been prepared to share with her mother for fear of causing concern. The mother later told me that she felt that something good – “something very therapeutic” – had come from the interview. The parts of it she had listened to confirmed what her daughter had told her, and my involvement with the family and previous reporting helped her better understand the problem, she told me.
“I swore I knew my daughter like the back of my hand,” she said. She is still struggling for complete answers. “It seems that if you get enough pieces, you can put the pieces together. I’m far from putting the whole puzzle together. ”
In conversation after conversation, I became something of a vessel for young people and parents to share their grief 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 clear words his daughter had said to him before she died in the intensive care unit after a suicide overdose: “‘I can see colors,'” she told him. Our conversation took place just two weeks after her death. The father sobbed and thanked me for listening, but it was clear that he primarily needed to hear it himself and process it.
Another parent, 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 did I learn from the experts studying youth mental health? Why are so many teens suffering these days?
How to help teens struggling with mental health
Recognize the characters. Anxiety and depression are different problems, but they share some indicators. Look for changes in a teen’s behavior, such as disinterest in eating or altered sleep patterns. A teenager in distress may express excessive worry, hopelessness, or deep sadness.
A teenager was gripped by horror that a sexual encounter he had had would become known and his life would be ruined. He had not told it to his parents, he said; he carried his fears like a time bomb. He just needed to tell it to someone and wonder aloud what he was going to do.
All in all, I spoke to dozens of young people, some in short conversations who informed my mindset but who do not appear in this series of stories. I talked to others for many months, as in the case of M, whom I first met a year ago, and who shared their story in one of the first articles in the series. M was always honest and revealed at one point that they had started hurting themselves again; I told M I was going to share that 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 it can help someone else who is dealing with these things.
Some wanted to vent their anger over a medical system that they felt was ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. They wanted a goal of validation and justice. But as much as that, I think they talked to me because they wanted to try to understand and heal themselves.