The Dark Cloud

A mother who lost a son to depression hopes a film about teens breaking free of the illness can teach, erase the stigma and save young lives.

May 01, 1999|By PATRICIA MEISOL | PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

It feels like you are in a box and you can't get out. Buried. Something is pressing on you and you can't lift it up. Your grades fall, you can't concentrate, eat or sleep. There's no peace in your house, with all the screaming.

You think this crankiness is part of growing up.

Until growing up becomes a web of darkness, so bleak it nearly smothered one Maryland teen after she returned home from a dance one night. As she recalled in a film unveiled last week at a conference on mood disorders at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she'd been crying, breathing "weird" and nervous all night. In her bedroom, she counted out some pills, and drank them down with Coke. She didn't even like Coke, but she went on drinking it, long after the pills, staring at the empty bottle in disbelief. What had she done?

Like the half-dozen other Maryland teens in this film and its sponsor -- a parent who hopes to turn these stories into routine educational material in the nation's 23,000 high schools -- she and her parents knew nothing about the condition doctors ultimately diagnosed: depression.

Until 10 years ago, few knew children could be depressed.

It's still rarely diagnosed -- 70 percent are never helped -- but it's very common: 5 percent of teens suffer clinical depression or manic-depressive illness. It's a topic that is likely to get more and more attention from schools, doctors and parents in light of the killings of high school students in Littleton, Colo.

Whether the teens who shot their fellow students and then took their own lives suffered from depression may never be known. Depressed people are not always violent. But depression in teens, if undiagnosed and untreated, often results in suicide.

"This is not to say that everybody who commits suicide is depressed, but a high percent are -- 80 to 90 percent -- and if you add alcohol, suicide is the third leading cause of death in kids," says Sally Mink, who develops programs for young people for the Hopkins-affiliated Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association (DRADA).

The No. 1 killer of young people is car accidents, and second is violence. "We don't know how many in cars are trying to commit suicide or self-medicate" with drugs or alcohol, Mink says.

It was Mink's idea to make the film, titled "Day for Night: Recognizing Teenage Depression." It took 50 or 60 phone calls by doctors and nurses to their patients to find teens and parents willing to share their stories. The stigma is great. Many parents and doctors are hesitant to give a diagnosis or to tell teachers about it for fear it may hurt their children's grades and chances for college acceptances, Mink said.

The film stresses that depression is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, it points out, it's a medical disorder that should be treated the way diabetes and other medical conditions are treated.

Teens are depressed not because they are bad or their parents are mean, but because they suffer from a chemical imbalance, Paramjit Joshi, a Hopkins psychiatrist and leading expert on childhood depression and violence, says in the film, produced by Vanderpool Productions.

"It saddens me because it is such a treatable condition," she says after detailing the imbalance. "Kids get better and get on with their life."

If Rodwell Dart had been diagnosed sooner, his life might have turned out differently, says his mother, Hailey Rodwell Dart of Aspen, Colo.

Described by his mother as a wonderfully engaging kid, the life of the party, Roddy also had a quiet side, in which he hid away. Writing brought him some peace, she thinks, and some day she hopes to publish his work.

Last week, though, Dart presided over the premiere of the film dedicated to her son's memory. She congratulated the teens in the movie for their candor and courage in speaking about their depression in a way she hopes will help others.

Like the parents on the film, Dart knew nothing about depression when Roddy experienced some of its symptoms. Two years ago, on a visit home during Christmas break, he went out with friends to a nightclub and fell down some stairs, talked his way out of an ambulance, and was discovered dead of a brain trauma the next day. He was 22 years old, and had been on medication for depression for two years. She says her son knew as an adult that he had suffered for years before he sought help, and could have benefited from earlier treatment.

"What's hard for parents to realize is how common this illness is," says Kay Redfield Jamison, the Hopkins psychiatry professor whose book about her own experience with depression, "Unquiet Mind," has become a hot seller.

It was after reading this book that Dart wrote to Jamison to ask if there was a project she could underwrite to commemorate her son.

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