Increased access to treatment needed for teen depression

In Vero Beach, one set of parents wants to tell the world about their son if it helps prevent another suicide. Two weeks ago, the 17-year-old senior at Vero High took his own life.

Now his mother, who has been hospitalized six times with bipolar disorder, is struggling again. Helping others look for signs of depression may help her make sense of what has happened, she says.

“If my baby can save one other child, then I’m going to talk about it,” said Carolyn Pierre, the mom of the boy. Holding up a photo of her son smiling broadly, she said, “This is what depression looks like.”

In Sebastian, another set of parents has told virtually no one outside their family what they went through on New Year’s Day when their child attempted suicide.

But a month later, their 14-year-old daughter, pursuing what she sees as a fresh start, is ready to share her experience to try to help others, passing on the encouragement she got in a mental health hospital and the hope she is finding in continued therapy.

“I never talked to anyone about how I felt because I didn’t think anyone would understand or be able to help me,” the eighth-grader said.

After keeping things “bottled up inside” and nearly giving up, she wants to encourage anyone else whose problems seem hopeless to speak out and get help as she has.

“Being in the stability facility with other kids that were going through the same thing made me realize I’m not the only one. We all shared our stories with one another and were each other’s rocks.”

The rate of youth hospitalizations for mental health issues is remarkably high in Indian River County – though, thankfully, the suicide rate is low.

For children under 18, the hospitalization rate is twice that of the state as a whole and the third highest among Florida counties after Volusia and Flagler.

In 2018, Indian River’s rate of child mental health hospitalizations neared its highest level in 20 years, topped only by a spike from 2012 to 2014.

At Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center, pediatric inpatient admissions for mental health issues were up 27 percent in 2019 compared to 2017.

Attempting to deal with the problem of fearful, depressed or otherwise distraught children, the Indian River School District has added several social workers, as well as a mental health services coordinator. Recently hired superintendent Dr. David Moore and Dr. Sharon Packard, head of school mental health services, have voiced a goal of having a psychologist on staff at every school in the county.

The school district has also allowed in an outside agency to conduct a depression awareness and violence prevention program that is currently being expanded in the schools. In just four days of therapists presenting the curriculum to 13- and 14-year-olds at Vero High’s Freshman Learning Center, 37 students sought additional counseling, stipulating that they wanted it within a day or a week.

The hope is increased availability of mental health treatment, at low or no cost, will get at-risk kids who previously felt they had nowhere to turn to come forward and seek help.

The Mental Health Association therapists conducting the anti-suicide and anti-violence program in schools say besides helping students, an intergenerational benefit became apparent last year when the program was first presented: Children were encouraging their parents to get treatment.

The nonprofit agency is ramping up its search for philanthropic dollars to cover the cost of expanding the program to more children. Dr. Nick Coppola, a family practice doctor who is head of the MHA, feels the surge of students stepping up for care is a sign that kids trust his therapists after seeing them in schools last year.

Whether that need is presenting itself because of awareness efforts, or because of stress caused by school shootings, tragedies in the news and incidents like last month’s death of a student as well another in 2019, the surge serves as a clarion call for increased access to treatment for adolescent depression.

“My prayer has always been that neither of my boys would ever have any mental issues. Depression is a painful, lonely, miserable disease,” said Carolyn Pierre, mother of the boy who died in January.

As for the eighth-grade girl who nearly gave up, she wants to encourage anyone else whose problems seem hopeless to speak out and get help as she has.

The girl said in a text to Vero Beach 32963 that she and others in the facility “prayed for one another and gave advice to each other.”

“I was so glad to see them go home and say how they were going to get help and focus on themselves.”

As her treatment moves from in-patient to out-patient therapy – she is starting with a therapist at Treasure Coast Community Health – the 14-year-old says her bond with her mother “has grown tremendously.”

“People understand and want to help,” she says.

“Now that I’m out, I feel closer with my parents and my brothers. I feel like I can truly be myself around them. I don’t feel alone anymore.”

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