How you can help young people manage their depression and grief
Young people find it hard to cope
Depression, hysteria, or suicide attempts…these can be triggered by failure in an examination, a failed relationship, rejection by peers or the death of a loved one…and in all such cases the younger you are, the harder it is to deal with the problem. Lack of communication with parents compounds the problem.
Dr. Bappaditya Deb, psychiatrist, explains. ‘The younger you are, the more difficult it is for you to cope. A youngster has probably not experienced a similar situation before and could think of it as the end of the world. And if he has no support system, he could well seek an escape route.’
Denial is a temporary escape route
Some years ago when a five-storey building in Calcutta collapsed, killing over 16 people who were fast asleep, eleven year old Rishi Damani (who lost his parents) went into a state of shock, quite unable to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy. But the day after the incident he wanted to go to school again.
Young people who are unable to express their feelings of insecurity and grief often like to immerse themselves in their daily routine. While this is good, it is important that feelings are expressed. ‘People who have survived accidents, natural calamities or have been surviors of say, a violent crime, usually suffer from what we call post-traumatic stress disorder. They need an atmosphere of security and comfort,’ says Dr. S.K. Som, psychiatrist. ‘If the victim is very young he needs substitute parenting. If necessary he should move in with those who can provide such an environment.’
Young children need physical demonstrations of affection
For very young children, physical proximity is crucial at this stage. ‘They are more readily consoled by physical demonstrations of assurance such as hugging, rather than formal messages of condolence,’ says Dr. Som. They should not be left alone, specially at night, as they may be frightened by recurrent nightmares and flashbacks replaying the events which caused the unfortunate event.
What happens immediately after a stressful event?
Essentially the survivor goes through three stages. ‘The first stage is disbelief and denial,’ says Dr. Deb, ‘and this stage could last for a couple of days or some weeks. The second phase is anger and the victim keeps asking himself: Why did this happen to me? The sufferer attempts to find someone he can hold responsible for the tragedy. In case of an accident or a situation where a crime has been committed, the victim wants the guilty to be brought to book.
‘The third stage,’ continues Dr. Deb, ‘is that of depression and the duration depends entirely on the victim’s age, mental stability, the circumstances at the time of the tragedy and the support system he has.’
How to help:
The doctors suggest the following ways to offer support:
1) The victim should be encouraged to express his grief, not suppress it.
2) Friends and relatives have to ensure that the sufferer does not withdraw from people.
3) Most people benefit from talking to a counselor and the sufferer should be encouraged to speak to one.
If the person is suicidal:
1) Obtain as much information as possible about the circumstances leading to the flashpoint.
2) Encourage the sufferer to see a counselor.
3) If the person agrees, then chalk out a course of action. For example you can suggest a counselor.
4) If the person refuses to seek help, suggest the involvement of a senior family member or friend.
5) If you do have to give advice, remember that practical solutions to problems are more helpful. The emphasis has to on averting any crisis and not a long-term solution.
6) Attempt to sort out the confusion in the person’s mind. A depressed person often sees the problem as far more serious than it actually is.
7) Point out to the individual his strengths and the positive aspects of his life. In other words: Establish a relationship. The depressed person needs a good friend/listener more than anything else.
(This article was published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, under the title of ‘Help Survivors Cope with Tragedy.’ )