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Teenage Depression
Original Post
It’s a time to form an authentic self, to undergo internal revolutions while defying the fire of external criticism, to forge one’s personality as an adult. It’s a noble, challenging time; many cultures have rites of passage to test and bring a young person into society. Yet in our society “teenager” connotes being moody, petulant, apathetic, peer driven, isolated in a world of your own, “depressed” if you will. So “Teenage Depression” is a redundancy, something we’ve come to expect from adolescents, which seems a strange comment on our society. Treating teenagers with anti-depressant medication is problematic, as more studies indicate that Prozac and other medications may increase chances of suicide among teens.

There is something off kilter about anticipating depression for the most exciting time of growth. It’s no wonder that teenagers make their own rituals, clan behavior, if there is no larger role or forum to stretch them, no higher demands made for their entrance into society. Instead in commercial culture there is an intense pressure to conform, not to be queer, not be misshapen, not be ugly, not be a loser. Rather than a positive emphasis on developing a unique self, there is a negative emphasis on banishing parts of yourself to non-being. It’s easy to get caught in the fear of being ridiculed, even by yourself, which compounds feelings of “depression.” The anger of not being who you are then turns inward to strangle that what you might have become. In our society adolescents must be fighters, often in a forum that is hard for adults to understand or shepherd. And it seems as if “depression” is just part of the vocabulary of what being a teenager is now.

The strongest performance of Prozak and the Platypus I have seen was for an audience of teenagers at the New York State Summer School for the Arts (NYSSSA). It was only a reading of the play, but it connected with the teenage audience in a profound way. Students from that evening are still contacting me about doing the play several years later because the play moved them in a way they never forgot. After the show there was an intense discussion, focusing on the character Blue. Mostly a physical and vocal role with very few lines, Blue is the most ephemeral of the characters in the play, and the one that adults either ignore or have the most questions about and want pinned down.

Who is Blue? Eternal voice, a singer, fucked-up angel, depression, the sky, seduction, loss, music, sex, the ocean, a wave, my favorite color, hope, pain, Prozak’s dead mother, a ghost, suicide, a cool chick, the Blues… Her fluidity seems to represent their experience of “depression” in all its varied aspects. She is a state of mind they all have experienced, to some degree cherish and fear, or at least are deeply engaged with and is a part of their daily lives. Blue is present in song and sound, but not in language, so she comes close to their feeling of the inarticulate void, what it is to be “depressed.” From listening I’d say maybe only one, or at most two, of the students had ever known anything close to clinical depression. But the rest had instinctual knowledge of the terrain, fluency with the vocabulary of symptoms and medication, and an acceptance that “depression” is a part of their daily lives.

What moves them about the play is that Prozak, the central character, makes a choice to engage with Blue, to pass through the fire of her own sadness and even death. She is supported by her music, an imaginary animal guide, and a father who does not abandon her. It’s a very hopeful and romantic premise, whose truth is supported by the actual emotional experience of the play. Adults love many different aspects of the play: its whimsy; its science, the music, and treatment of a variety of themes. But those who really take it for a ride seek the assurance that it’s possible to go through some transformation inside, often in explicable to others, but vital to themselves and come out the other side.

The theater work I have done with diverse groups of teenagers has always left me inspired by their creative ability, capacity for truth, willingness to take huge risks, and support each other. Anything phony loses attention fast, but what is powerful, true, and heartfelt, ignites their own ability to communicate, and watch out when they speak. It’s powerful and articulate, demands to be heard.
So the frequency and presence of “teenage depression” strikes me as the flip side of their tremendous potential, which is too new and insistent to be entirely denied. And it strikes me as being particularly important to recognize the avenues they find towards self expression and growth, if our society is not giving guidance or demanding much, (beyond their becoming avid consumers). Music and poetry is a big sphere accessible to many where channels can open and voices can be heard inside and without.

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