Ailsa Cameron: When teenagers lose touch with reality

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It may come as a surprise that teenage depression is relatively common. At my school I know of at least six or seven people who have suffered some form of mental disarray. This doesn't mean that they've received a diagnosis, or had counselling, and it certainly doesn't mean they've tried to end their own lives, as has occurred so tragically among a group of young people in south Wales in an apparent pact forged over the internet. But it's still a torment, and depression is regularly cast aside as the signs of a "moody" teenager, and rarely recognised as an actual illness.

There's a great ignorance in our society about "depression". In school and among young people the word "depressed" is frequently applied in a slangy light-hearted way to describe fleeting feelings of disappointment – eg "I'm so depressed, I'm grounded for a week". The actual meaning and effect of real depression is rarely considered, let alone discussed.

The teen years are horrendously trying times. Rapidly fluctuating hormone levels, overwhelming exam pressure, life-altering decisions, a desire to fulfil the expectations of parents and teachers; all of these pressures intensify, accumulating in new anxiety and demands; swelling until everything seems useless and impossible.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that all teenagers are severely affected by the stress of being a young person. It's true that some manage to crawl out of puberty unscathed, but some are left behind. Then there are those who have to be dragged out, but with little awareness of the illness they have suffered. Usually these people have to deal with depression alone; trying to understand their emotions, often rationalising them with undesirable personality traits: they must be weak-willed, spineless or just plain boring. Some recover, some are forever stuck in the inescapable rut of adolescence, never to be discovered.

Parents, hindered by the typically teenage reluctance of their child to talk about their emotions, seldom have a useful understanding of mental illness. It is in these cases that depression is either not acknowledged or dismissed as normal teenage behaviour. This is where the illness becomes high-risk and the young person is suddenly a novice player in a perilous game.

Those teenagers who are willing to talk – usually girls – may turn to friends. While this can sometimes help, often it can thwart progress. Who's interested in an illness that just makes someone dreary and uninspiring? Which leads to a second question: when you're depressed, and your friends only ever comment on how you're "not a laugh" anymore, where on earth do you turn?

All across social networking sites people openly claim to be "seriously depressed" or "painfully insecure". Poems verbalising suicidal thoughts litter MySpace, and dark colours dominate teenager's pages. Depression's social quarantine has helped it become a darkly sinister trend. Worse still, it's a trend that has provoked a backlash against depression in youth culture.

Most of my friends are extremely liberal people, yet comments such as, "I really think miserable people are so self-centred" are common. Moreover, we have no idea how to distinguish between those who have a serious mental condition and those who are "attention-seekers". Cries for help published on the internet are ignored, and more often than not it's too late to help those who need it most.

The power of these social networking websites is unbelievable. You can see so much in an hour on Bebo or MySpace, and learn a frightening amount about people. It is a place that many teenagers who feel lifeless try to feel part of something. Handy internet tools let you discover people who have the same interests as you, and form special social groups. On Bebo there are countless "groups" or "bands" which members can join and where they apparently feel wanted.

It's so instant and accessible, but it's easy to forget that these are virtual sites. You do not actually belong to anything; you are merely one of millions of internet users. It's a distorted reality that's easy to get sucked into; a few tapped keys and decisions are made. Immediately. There's no time to even think.

There's no denying the internet's blinding danger. It can grab hold of you when you're in a dark place and fling you in deeper. But it's not the sole perpetrator of suicide. What we really need is an understanding as a society, an education and an acceptance of depression and its effects. Let's work together on this one and show some humanity. No more lost souls please.

The writer is a Year 11 pupil at a state secondary school in Wiltshire

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