To Your Health

I am very concerned about my 12-year-old son. He mopes around the house, doesn't seem to have hobbies or friends, and the friends he does have are rather unsavory characters. I was like that when I was a teenager, but I don't want him to suffer like I did, even to the point of having suicidal thoughts. How can I help him?

Q. I am very concerned about my 12-year-old son. He mopes around the house, doesn't seem to have hobbies or friends, and the friends he does have are rather unsavory characters. I was like that when I was a teenager, but I don't want him to suffer like I did, even to the point of having suicidal thoughts. How can I help him?

A. Although most adults recall having a tough time during adolescence, it may be even tougher today. We all experience periods of anxiety, sadness, and despair as normal reactions to negative life experiences. Teenagers are very vulnerable to self-destructive emotions and teen suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in children ages 10-14. More teenagers and young adults die of suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. Parents today need to be aware of the warning signs of teen depression that might lead to suicide, especially when they themselves have a history of depression. Keep a watch for:

Neglect of personal appearance or hygiene

Loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable

Withdrawal from family and friends

Persistent aggressive, destructive, or defiant behavior

Poor school performance or trouble concentrating

Markedly increased irritability.

These are also the warning signs of drug abuse, which also can lead to depression and other life-threatening behaviors.

Depression is not simply "all in the head." Depression has physical causes that are often linked to abnormalities in brain chemistry. The symptoms of major depression consistently reflect changes in the chemical messengers of the brain, called "neurotransmitters." The neurotransmitters most closely related to depression are acetylcholine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, and the level of each can be affected by intake of certain nutrients.

Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are the neurotransmitters that get the most attention. They are made from the amino acids that, except for strict vegetarians, are fairly abundant in our high protein American diet.

Acetylcholine is often neglected as an antidepressant neurotransmitter, although there is about as much evidence for it being involved in depression as there is for serotonin. Acetylcholine requires a lot of "methyl" groups, and S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe), one of the most studied nonprescription antidepressants, is a naturally occurring "methyl donor" that can increase the level of acetylcholine. The results of clinical trials demonstrate that SAMe provides a rapid therapeutic response with relatively few side effects, other than the expense. SAMe is not found in any particular food and is available at present only as a rather pricey food supplement.

The production and use of all the neurotransmitters requires vitamin B-6 plus some other B-vitamins and some minerals, so a good multivitamin/mineral supplement is indispensable. Extra amounts of vitamin C are also reported to help improve and stabilize mood.

Depression is usually a temporary problem. Taking care of depression may prevent the permanent problem of suicide.

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