Youth suicide expert helps adults talk to teenagers about depression, suicide; praises SPEAK initiative

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Adolescent depression is increasing at an alarming rate. Researchers say as many as one in five teenagers suffers from clinical depression, and untreated, it is the strongest risk factor for suicide behavior.

WHNT News 19, along with the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, is taking action to arm parents with the knowledge to spot depression warning signs in teenagers and the confidence to talk about it.

The daily pressures teenagers face are enough to put them on edge.

"It's stress and family issues and they can't cope with it by themselves," said New Century Technology High School sophomore and SPEAK student ambassador Jayden Gautreaux.

Some, also deal with internal battles.

"I have been depressed before, and you don't really want to be around people when you're depressed," said New Century junior and SPEAK student ambassador Sierra Arbogast. "You don't feel like talking to anybody."

In the midst of these struggles, parents are forced to determine if it is just typical teenage moodiness or if it is a mood disorder.

Dr. Scott Poland is a licensed psychologist. He is also internationally recognized as an expert on youth suicide.

He said adults need to look for changes in three main areas, mood, physical symptoms and self attitude.

"First of all, is this behavior pervasive," Poland asked. "Is this affecting all aspects of a teen's life? Is this affecting social life with peers, family, school performance? And is it persistent? Has this gone on for two or three or more weeks? And then, have they possibly dropped out of what were previously pleasureful activities?"

Experts say depression is among the most treatable mental disorders, but it frequently goes undiagnosed, especially in teenagers.

"I think for the most part, parents know something isn't quite right because there are often some issues with sleeping, there's some issues with eating," said Poland. "I'm actually sorry to tell you, I think parents can often be pretty high on denial. They actually know at some level, my kid's got a problem, but if I recognize it, then I have to do something and then I have to really start worrying about it."

As parents of teenagers will tell you, though, it is often hard to get them to open up to adults.

"My thought is that it's such a personal matter, they feel they should keep it to themselves," said New Century junior and SPEAK student ambassador Bradford Flowers. "Or they feel like, potentially, they're not being strong enough for themselves, ergo they feel the need to solve this on their own, as opposed to seek someone else's help."

It is even more challenging when it comes to feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide.

"One of the things holding us all back is the stigma and we're so uncomfortable with the word," said Poland. "When everything in the literature says we just need to ask. And we need to let kids know, you're not the first person to feel this way."

Experts say suffering in silence is not the solution. A recent study showed the odds of adolescents dealing with clinical depression grew by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014. Left untreated, it is the strongest risk factor for suicide behavior.

"To quote our surgeon general, we've got to talk about suicide prevention more, at our homes, our schools, and our churches," said Poland.

He added convincing teenagers to talk to adults is crucial.

"Reach out, don't preach to your child," said Poland. "Your kid doesn't want you to say 'do this, do that, you won't have a problem.' They simply want you to listen to them. And most of all, parents have to find the shared time when their kid will truly talk to them. As a parent of four children, I could tell when I asked too many questions, the conversation was over. And be careful not to say too much."

The SPEAK Initiative is also working to open those lines of communication.

"I'm a big fan of the SPEAK program in north Alabama," said Poland. "We cannot prevent every youth suicide, but we can prevent the majority, if we simply are teaching kids how to help themselves, how to help their friends, if we have all of the adults alert to what to look for."

The SPEAK North Alabama app is for anyone who is contemplating suicide or anyone that wants to help someone at risk in a responsible way. It outlines warning signs, who to call and guides you on what to say and what not to say to a suicidal person.

Dr. Poland said he has it on his own phone.

"It's very good and I like the fact that it has the different headings, whether you're a teenager, whether you're a veteran, the resources," he said. "We're always striving to try to figure out how can we reach the teens the best. That's the challenge. We need to involve them as much as possible in the process and in the planning and I know that's one of the core foundational goals of the SPEAK program is get input from the students themselves."

The program is also reaching teenagers through its student ambassadors.

"With SPEAK, I try to make students feel like just because you don't have a support system at home, people at school are there for you," said Arbogast. "Your counselors, teachers and classmates and people who have been through similar situations."

"Kids know things that the adults are never going to be aware of, so a really critical aspect of suicide prevention is reaching teenagers themselves," said Poland. "That's why the SPEAK program's ambassadors are so important."

The SPEAK Initiative continues to grow, but it is already receiving high praise.

"SPEAK should be there for every school district in the region," said Poland. "How do I help myself, how do I help my friend, the national crisis hotline numbers, who do I contact at school."

WHNT News 19 and iHeartMedia are the media partners for this project, sponsored by the Huntsville Hospital Foundation. We are Taking Action to make sure people, especially children, in our community get the resources and help they need. We'll be bringing you special reports and are committed to doing our part to end the stigma associated with suicide. The Speak Suicide Prevention App is free for Apple and Android devices.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you need to speak to someone.  You can also access the Lifeline Crisis Chat any time.