For over a year I have been reporting intimate pandemic, a new Times serialized project exploring adolescent mental health, and had the opportunity to hear from families and youth who shared intimate and painful accounts of self-harm, suicide, anxiety and depression. They helped me do the detective work to understand the experience of a young generation in deep crisis.
But at some point I realized that these families were doing their own valiant detective work. They participated in the journalistic process in order to understand what was happening in their own homes either to themselves or to their children.
I saw a telling example last year in a small town in upstate New York. I was sitting in a restaurant with my notebook in hand, reviewing my notes, when a waitress approached me to ask what I was doing. I told him where I work and that I was researching adolescent mental health.
“You should talk to my daughter,” he said.
The next day I met with her and her teenage daughter, who had recently spent time in an inpatient facility to treat her anxiety and depression. Sitting and eating some chips, the girl recounted her difficult experience while her mother, who was next to her, listened attentively.
His story made me wonder. She had been hospitalized and treated but there was nothing to explain to me the cause of her intense anxiety and depression. She had heard enough stories like hers to realize that something was missing. Then the girl turned to her mother and asked, “Do you mind if we talk alone?”
The mother agreed and left. The teen proceeded to reveal intense and personal details of her struggle that she had not been prepared to share with her mother for fear of worrying her. The mother later told me that she felt that something good had come out of the interview, “something very therapeutic.” The parts of the conversation she had heard confirmed what her daughter had told her, and my involvement with the family and previous reporting helped her better understand the issue, she told me.
“I swore I knew my daughter like the back of my hand,” he said. You still have a hard time finding all the answers. “It seems that if you collect enough pieces, you can put them together. I am far from putting together the whole puzzle.
In conversation after conversation, I became a kind of witness to the teens and parents who shared their grief and confusion, not only with me but with each other. They also heard their own voice.
Not everyone was able to identify the cause of the pain. One father said the last lucid words he heard his daughter say before she died in intensive care after a suicidal overdose were: “I can see colors.” We spoke just two weeks after her death. The father sobbed and thanked me for listening, but it was clear that what he needed most was to hear it himself and process it.
A mother shared painful details of her daughter’s struggles with anxiety, depression and a suicide attempt. She wanted to know what I was learning from the experts who study adolescent mental health, why boys suffer so much.
How to help teens with mental health problems
A teenager was consumed with terror that a sexual encounter he had had would come to light and his life would be ruined. He said that he had not told his parents about him and lived in fear like someone carrying a ticking time bomb. He just needed to tell someone and wonder out loud what to do.
In all, I spoke to dozens of young people, sometimes in short conversations that helped inform me but don’t appear in the notes in this series. With others I talked over many months, as in the case of M, whom I first met a year ago and who revealed her story in one of the first articles in the series. M always spoke frankly and, at some point, he told me that he had hurt himself again; I told him that he would have to share that information with his mother, and I did so with her consent.
After each conversation I thanked the boys and their parents for sharing so much. The answer I received most often was: I’m telling you so this can help someone else dealing with these things.
Some wanted to express their frustration with the medical system that they felt was ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. They wanted some measure of validation of fairness. But as much as that, I think they talked to me because they wanted to understand and heal themselves.
We would like to say thanks to the author of this short article for this outstanding material
Why do teenagers suffer so much? A series of reports on mental health delves into their problems