Dr. Chris Lucas, head of child psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine, says it best:
“People only seem to pay attention when there is a major event and when a large number of kids die suddenly together. Whereas kids are dying all the time through gun violence or…though suicide, and there is not much attention paid to that.”
This is precisely how we began to pay attention to all the unheeded cries for help: it was just after the massacre at Virginia Tech, where so many young people had died suddenly, that we began researching teenage mental illness and rage. Soon, the bigger story came into focus: All over America, kids were dying by their own hands in far greater numbers than those killed by an enraged school shooter. Experts we spoke to characterized this as two sides of the same coin: violence turned inward, or unleashed upon others. Both are the end result of a terrible path that too many kids are on – and one that few of the adults in their lives recognize or understand.
In the nearly two years since we started looking into adolescent mental health, we’ve interviewed scores of experts on depression, anxiety, anger and teen suicide. We entered chat rooms and left postings on a number of Web sites devoted to these topics – and are grateful to the many young people who reached out to tell us their stories. Of the many statistics included in Cry for Help, there is one that stands out: that young people experiencing mental illness like depression and anxiety can go for many years (estimates range from 6 to 23 – which obviously puts them well into adulthood) before they are diagnosed and treated. That’s a lot of silent pain and suffering going under the radar.
Increasingly, schools across the country are feeling compelled to get a handle on the mental health of students. In Cry for Help, we were afforded extraordinary access to two high schools trying two different approaches – which we followed in real time throughout a school year. One of these schools was Hamilton High in Ohio, which had lost four teens to suicide in less than a year’s time.
To us, it seemed the school was using the “It Takes a Village” approach to help students in the wake of the suicides, and to encourage them to open up about their own issues. Teachers, administrators and counselors at HHS volunteered to take part in a series of initiatives that were direct and personal — to find students in emotional pain, to assure them they were not alone, and to offer time and resources to get them additional help if necessary.
The other school we profile is Clarkstown North High School in New York, which launched an equally ambitious effort to reach young people where so many of them now “live” — online. The program allows teens and their parents to seek out information anonymously through a special mental health and suicide prevention Web site. The theory here is that rather than trying to find the few kids most at risk (which the program’s creator, a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Lucas, likens to finding a needle in a haystack) the goal should be to improve the mental health of the entire student population. In other words, the rising tide lifts all boats.
A young woman named Stacy Hollingsworth gave us invaluable insights into what it feels like to be severely depressed and hide it from the outside world. Her parents were like so many others: they thought they knew their child. The lessons they learned and Stacy’s own account of her journey to the brink of suicide and back are important for anyone who is — or plans to be — raising a child.
There is so much that we in the adult world don’t know about what our kids are saying and feeling. Cry for Help gives us a chance to listen, and opens a window into their world. Their stories, and the disturbing statistics on teen suicide, are a clarion call for all of us to start paying more attention every day.
- Edie Magnus, Executive Producer