It’s in the news, in our literature and in our own homes. Depression takes the lives of thousands of teenagers every year, and a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that the percentage of teenagers suffering from major depressive episodes in the United States continues to increase. Suicide remains a leading cause of death among Americans, Psych Central reporting that it is the sixth leading cause among children aged 5 to 14 and the third leading cause among adolescents aged 15 to 24. In our own county, according to the Montgomery County government, the age-adjusted rate of suicide in 2010-2012 was 7.1 for every 100,000 people, an increase from the 6.5 rate in 2005-2008. Yet despite its prevalence and lethality, discussions and school lessons on depression remain generally non-existent, and most Americans fail to understand how to help those with the disease. I know this because for most of my own life, I didn’t understand how to handle depression either, even as the older sister of two children with clinical depression.
My sister was diagnosed when she was only eleven. At the time, a naive thirteen-year-old myself, I didn’t understand what depression was or what it could do. It seems ridiculous now, but I once believed my sister’s depression was a choice, a feat to gain attention. Thus, I treated her like any older sister would: I teased her, I was overprotective, and we fought like “normal” siblings. Unfortunately, my sister and I were never “normal”, and what I failed to grasp was that my actions had a different impact on her. Unlike other kids, sometimes it seems like my sister wears a dark lens that blurs her vision, shields her from sunshine, and affects how she interprets the world. Consequently, I can’t expect my sister to always react like other younger siblings do, since depression is an unshakable adjunct that, though seemingly invisible, is always present.
In the years following her diagnosis, though I was able to empathize with my sister, I still failed to realize just how dangerous depression was. I didn’t recognize how unapologetically lethal depression could be until it took away my childhood friend two years ago. When my friend committed suicide, it finally hit me, in the most heart-wrenching way, that death was actually possible. I had seen my sister cut herself before, I had seen her hospitalized, and I had even seen her attempt suicide. So the idea of dying from depression should not have been so far reached in my mind. Yet the thing about death is that it doesn’t seem real until you lose someone forever. Had I paid closer attention to my friend, I feel like I could have protected him. But I didn’t, because I, and so many others, did not know enough about depression. And after losing my friend, I couldn’t stop thinking that my sister could be next.
Following my friend’s passing, I knew I had to change, so I got to work. I began seeing my school counselor for techniques on handling mentally-ill siblings. I chose depression whenever possible as the topic for academic papers and research projects. I shifted my thinking and set aside personal beliefs in order to always give my sister the benefit of the doubt and a non-judgmental, older sibling to receive advice from. I did everything in my power to educate myself about my sister’s disease.
If I were to say that all of this was an easy process, I would be lying, for my sister’s depression has often had a daunting effect on me. It reminds me of my every mistake and holds onto the past. It makes me question whether I am a good sister, a good daughter, or even a good human being. And it sometimes goes as far as to label me the cause of my sister’s mental illness. However, though depression has brought many hardships to my family and I, it has also instilled in us many valuable lessons. Personally, it has made me a good listener and has ingrained in me the skill of withholding judgement. It also has taught me to take care of myself, since I cannot assist others if I, myself, am unstable.
Recently, my sister’s depression has begun to stabilize, thanks to therapy, medication, and supportive family and friends. However, with one up comes another down, and last year, my youngest sibling was also diagnosed with depression. The child who had always been a bubble of happiness had been infected by the same, deadly disease. This second diagnosis hit me especially hard due to the incredible guilt I felt with the fact that, even after my experiences with my sister, I was unable to recognize my youngest sibling’s symptoms and save him from depression.
Although my family was better prepared for my youngest sibling’s depression, what’s so scary about the disease is its inconsistency. While depression expressed itself in loud cries for help from my sister, it passed silently through my other sibling, and last November, he wordlessly attempted suicide for the first time. Only after this terrifying experience was it revealed that my youngest sister was a transgender boy.
I would like to say that both my brother and sister are perfectly fine now and that their depression is gone. I would like to believe that my siblings will be completely safe when I’m at college, especially my brother as a young member of the LGBT community. But I know that in reality depression can’t be cured and that treatments are temporary and that my siblings will continue to face obstacles in the years to come.
As I get ready to move on to the next stages of my life, I can’t help but fear the moments where I won’t be able to check up on my brother and sister whenever I want to or give them hugs whenever they need. Though I’m excited about university life, I’m also torn by the desire to never leave my siblings’ sides. While I trust my siblings, and I know that they will do their best when I’m away, I don’t trust the world to protect them, yet. But I want the world to try.
I want my community to try loving my siblings. And loving them means educating yourself about their mental illness. Love means thinking before you speak, being there to listen, casting away preconceptions, and being aware of their mental state. It means remembering that they process words and actions differently, and that they are sensitive and fragile, but also strong and brave and smart and sassy. It means letting them live their lives normally while never forgetting that they can spiral at any time. Loving them means sacrificing, because their lives are more important than anything.
Though I wish that I could stay, I know that going to the best college possible will prepare me for a career path in social activism, through which I’ll be able to defend people like my siblings. So I must move on, but before I leave, I need for my community to understand what depression is, what it looks like, how it can hurt, and how we can best support kids with mental health issues. I need people like you, who took the time to read my story, to look after my brother and sister, and others like them. Prevent their names from being added to ongoing suicide stories in Montgomery County, in Maryland, in the United States, and in the world. Because while advocacy and policies can protect my siblings legally, the first and easiest step you can make to help them live safe and healthy lives is to care about depression.
Article by guest contributor Summer Oh of Richard Montgomery High School