Wednesday, 22 February 2012

"Pop Culture and Inspiration"

Last night I curled up in my favourite chair, wrapped the cozy afghan that Grandma Pringle had lovingly made for me years before, now worn and soft from all the comfort it has long provided me, and settled in for an hour of one of my favourite shows, Glee. Which sing out loud pop songs were in store for me? What zingers would Sue Sylvester be hurling Mr. Shue's way? Oh, I could hardly wait for an hour of fun. Oops! Apparently, Glee hadn't gotten my memo.

Instead of a lighthearted hour filled with pop music, it was an hour of inspiration of another kind. Wait. An hour of inspiration, you are thinking? It was about teen suicide. Yes, it was. But inspiration is wherever you choose to see it. I was inspired that the writers and producers of what appears on the surface to be a silly, fluffy show about teenagers, don't seem to shy away from the hot topics of our times - teen pregnancy, homosexuality, and now teen suicide. Silly at times, yes. Fluffy? Rarely.

During my own 20+ year struggle with depression I have experienced ebbs and flows with the illness. Sometimes I was mildy depressed. Sometimes I was healthy and well. On two occassions I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. And yes, I thought about suicide.

Suicide is the ultimate example of selfishness. People who kill themselves are doing it for attention. They only do it to hurt the people around them. Um, no. Actually, let me rephrase that. Emphatically, NO.

And let me clarify another major misconception about depression, which is that people who commit or attempt suicide want to die. They don't. People who kill themselves simply want the pain to end. They feel that all hope is gone, there is nowhere to turn, and the hurt is overwhelming.

I know what the desperation and pain feels like firsthand. And although I did think about suicide, it was never a real option for me. I was one of the lucky ones because I had a support network of family, friends and medical professionals to help me through the darkest moments. But what about kids? As an adult I had the perspective of knowing that time can, and usually does, heal. Kids don't always know that. A life lost to suicide is horrible and preventable. But a teenager's life lost to suicide is truly tragic.

If I were to tell you that the second leading cause of death in youths, after motor vehicle accidents, is suicide, what would you think? Would you be shocked? Now what if I told you that in a survey of 15,000 high school students (grades 7-12) in British Columbia, 34% knew of someone who had attempted or died by suicide? About one in three teenagers. Pretty staggering, huh?

What can we do? How do we change this? Here are some signs to watch for in your teenager:
* sudden change in behaviour (either very down or very up)
* withdrawal from friends and activities
* increased use of alcohol and drugs
* mood swings
* feelings of hoplessness
* change in eating or sleeping habits

How do you help? It's important to open up dialogue and give the person an opportunity to really express themselves. That means no judging, challenging, getting angry, or acting shocked. Help them to find ways to lessen the pain. And, probably most importantly, seek professional help. Depression is a serious illness and should be treated as such.

And if you are the parent of a teenager experiencing depression, don't forget to put your oxygen mask on first. Look after yourself and reach out for support. This is not something shameful so be open with the family. If you try to hide the illness then the stigma remains. Time to break down the walls of silence. Until we do, things won't get better.

Back to Glee. Pop culture is a mirror to society and can influence change. I truly hope that lots of conversations started over last night's episode. Now it's our responsibility to keep the conversation going. If you would like to learn more about mental health issues and teen suicide in particular, please take a look at these great resources, which also helped me write this post:

www.cmha.ca (Canadian Mental Health Association)
www.helpguide.org

On a final note, the inspirational anthem, "Stronger" by Kelly Clarkson was featured in last night's episode of Glee. I have adopted it as my unofficial theme song and for good reason. As Kelly sings, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!" Yes it does, Kelly.

KB xo



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