Is there really an epidemic of teen depression and suicide, or was it ever so? Stephanie Peatling examines the facts behind the figures.
WHEN a South Coast high school student committed suicide earlier this year discussion about teenage depression started all over again and another community was left wondering why such an apparently normal, happy-go-lucky boy felt compelled to choose death over life.
With no history of depression or any obvious reason, it appeared the boy had become part of what has been reported as an ``epidemic" of teenage depression and suicide.
When a Department of Education district officer was asked about the case, a slightly desperate edge crept into his voice: ``Most rural communities are aware that suicide is one of the biggest issues for young people and we are doing all we can at the moment to deal with it. Teachers are trained to look for signs, and students are constantly encouraged to talk to counsellors about any problems or negative feelings they may have. But, obviously, as in this case, it's not always enough."
According to the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare's latest research into suicide and hospitalised self-harm across the country, six males between the ages of 10 and 14 committed suicide in 1998. The figure soared to 116 for the 15 to 19 age group. In that same year one female in the younger age group committed suicide and 35 in the older group.
But the numbers of teenagers experiencing depression are much higher. A national depression initiative, beyondblue, is working on research that says one in five teenagers experiences depression.
Which raises the question, according to the manager of the initiative's youth and public health agenda, Dr Jane Burns: should we be looking on the dark or the bright side of the figures?
``The reality is four out of five teens are doing very well and four out of five are coping, but there is that other 20 per cent and that is still a reasonable number," Burns says.
``I think the change in focus is to what society would be like if it is full of adults who have had untreated depression, [so] it makes sense to target people at a younger age to help them deal with it now rather than later."
But Dr Judith Bessant, the director of the Social Policy and Advocacy Centre at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, is angered by a debate that seems to assume teenage depression and suicide are at greater levels than ever before.
``There is an enormous industry around suicide but when you look at the figures there aren't that many young people committing suicide.
``Most [figures] are measured in groups of 100,000 but when that's turned into a percentage it looks bigger.
``People are claiming it's getting worse but they can't because the way figures have been collected have changed. You can't compare figures from 30 years ago with some taken two years ago."
Bessant believes the teenage years are all about trying to shrug off the main relationship of childhood between parents and children and trying to establish independent, adult connections. But this attempt at entering the adult world collides with the day-to-day realities of most 13- to 16-year-olds, who are still largely financially dependent on parents.
Bessant says society is not willing to admit that depressed teenagers are a result of rapid economic change which has left them in limbo between childhood and adulthood, rather than one or two specific reasons in each case.
While Bessant says ``one suicide is one too many", she believes society has gone too far down the track of painting teenage depression and suicide as an epidemic.
``We have to accept that society is changing and that we are losing institutions like full-time jobs, the traditional family and education. We need to work out how to support society through those changes. We can't keep young people in education until they're 25, which is what people are trying to do now.
``We need to develop independence away from the traditional institutions."
While Bessant talks in big picture terms, Burns wants to take the issue back to a local level.
If, she reasons, young people can be made to feel as if they are valued members of their community, the feelings of isolation which play a big role in depression should decrease.
Enter a group such as Reach Out, an Internet-based support group for young people who are depressed.
``Young people are looking to do things," Reach Out's director, Jack Heath, says. ``They're as idealistic as they ever were but they're also deeply cynical about traditional institutions, so we need to look at ways of getting them connected to their community so they don't feel cut off."
Reach Out recently completed a pilot project in North Sydney, linking teenagers in the area who were involved with the organisation and its chat rooms with local volunteer groups.
``We wanted to match 100 volunteers and we got twice that, and I think that's how the problem has to be faced. We're not going to eradicate youth suicide but we'll make a difference in the lives of a few thousand young people.
``Give them the opportunity, because they're looking to do great things and the demand is greater than people think."
* Tomorrow : Friendship and faith : The teenage search for meaning.