A Closer Look At High Risk Youth
It is important not to overreact to isolated incidents. Young people will have problems and will learn, at their own rate, to struggle and deal with them. But it is critical for parents and helping adults to be aware of the factors that put a youth at particular risk, especially when stressful events begin to accumulate for these vulnerable individuals. A good starting point for identifying and intervening with highly troubled and depressed young people is the careful study of suicidal adolescents.
Family history and biology can create a predisposition for dealing poorly with stress. These factors make a person susceptible to depression and self-destructive behavior.
History of depression and/or suicide in the family
Alcoholism or drug use in the family
Sexual or physical abuse patterns in the family
Chronic illness in oneself or family
Family or individual history of psychiatric disorders such as eating disorders, schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, conduct disorders, delinquency
Death or serious loss in the family
Learning disabilities or mental/physical disabilities
Absent or divorced parents; inadequate bonding in adoptive families
Family conflict; poor parent/child relationships
Personality traits, especially when they change dramatically, can signal serious trouble. These traits include:
Impulsive behaviors, obsessions and unreal fears
Aggressive and antisocial behavior
Withdrawal and isolation; detachment
Poor social skills resulting in feelings of humiliation, poor self-worth, blame and feeling ugly
Over-achieving and extreme pressure to perform
Problems with sleeping and/or eating
Psychological and social events contribute to the accumulation of problems and stressors.
Loss experience such as a death or suicide of a friend or family member; broken romance, loss of a close friendship or a family move
Unmet personal or parental expectation such as failure to achieve a goal, poor grades, social rejection
Unresolved conflict with family members, peers, teachers, coaches that results in anger, frustration, rejection
Humiliating experience resulting in loss of self-esteem or rejection
Unexpected events such as pregnancy or financial problems
Predispositions, stressors and behaviors weave together to form a composite picture of a youth at high risk for depression and self-destructive behavior. Symptoms such as personal drug and alcohol use, running away from home, prolonged sadness and crying, unusual impulsivity or recklessness or dramatic changes in personal habits are intertwined with the family and personal history, the individual personality and the emotional/social events taking place in a person’s life.
It is not always easy for one person to see the “whole picture.” That’s why it is essential that people who have “hunches” that something is wrong take the lead to gather perspectives from other friends, family members and professionals who know the young person. It is all too often true that the survivors of an adolescent suicide only “put the pieces together” after the fact, when they sit together and try to figure out what happened. How fortunate a troubled young person is to have a caring adult take the initiative to look more closely before something serious happens!
The University of Minnesota Extension Service has two additional publications that can be helpful:
Supporting Distressed Young People (FS-2786), by Ron Pitzer
Helping Friends in Trouble (FS-2787), by Joyce Walker
Several common themes run through these two. First, young people must learn and practice coping skills to get them through an immediate conflict or problem. Coping strategies must emphasize self-responsibility to find positive, non-destructive ways to find relief. Second, communication skills are important. This involves being able to talk and selecting a good listener. It is important to express feelings, vent emotions, and talk about the problems and issues. Peers are good sympathizers, but it often takes an adult perspective to begin to plan how to make changes for the better. Third, young people need help to learn problem-solving skills. Sorting out the issues, setting goals and making plans to move forward are skills that can be taught and practiced.
Ultimately, most young people will develop and assume the responsibility for their own protection and peace of mind. But during the years of learning and practice, parents, teachers and helping adults need to be aware of the signs and patterns that signal danger. Awareness of adolescent stress and depression opens the door for adults to begin constructive interventions and stimulate emotional development.