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Class Of '17: Dealing With Depression, And Finding An Outlet

Stella M. Chávez
Phantasia Chavers, a ninth grader in Cedar Hill, wants to learn how to play the guitar. She's been battling depression and has been teased at school. She says she doesn't want to do what other kids think is popular.

One in 10 adolescents suffers from depression by age 18. It’s something that one of the members ofKERA's Class of '17is wrestling with. The series is part of a nationwide public broadcasting initiative called American Graduate. This week, we check back in with Cedar Hill ninth grader Phantasia Chavers.

Phantasia is more than halfway through ninth grade. She says this semester’s easier than the last one. But when it comes to social settings – that’s the part of being a teenager that’s hard.

“I consider myself a socially awkward person because I’m not the normal child,” she says.

She says other girls “try to be cute.” They want to fit in, not stand out.

“I’m that person that stands out and does stupid things,” she says. “When I tell them I played the violin, they be, ‘Ohh, why you such a nerd?’  I’m like, ‘But I’m not gonna be stupid and I’m gonna learn something.”

Challenges at school

Phantasia likes to stand up for herself. Sitting on a couch in her Cedar Hill home, she and her mom, Jameka, talk about the challenges.

“They try to call me like, a nerd. I’m like, ‘I don’t care. At least I’m not stupid.’ ”

Mom jumps in, “Why? Because you’re not fast?”

“Yeah, because I’m not fast, not focused on boys like them,” Phantasia says.

Warning signs of depression

Most teens can relate to some of what she's going through. Experts say the warning signs come when a teen’s behavior shifts, especially after a major life change.

For Phantasia, that was the death of her mom’s first husband and later, her cousin. Then last fall, her older sister left for college. That, plus the taunting, and Phantasia refused to go to school for a week.

“You know, she just had a moment where she just cried and cried and cried and cried and cried,” her mom says. “And I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to take her to the hospital. She didn’t want me to hold her or touch her or anything or baby her and she loves to be babied.”

Mom says it was painful not being able to help her daughter. Finally, she took some steps.

“The only thing that I could do was take her to see someone to see what was making her cry,” Jameka Chavers says. “It wasn’t anything physical hurting, it was something that was in her heart and her head.”

Depression in teens a critical issue

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18. And it happens more to girls than boys.

Dr. Madhukar Trivedi is director of the Dallas Depression Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He says parents should watch for the typical signs of depression – sadness, crying, sleep troubles, eating too much or too little.

“One thing is not to be judgmental or critical or angry at the teenager, but to really share in the concern,” Dr. Trivedi says.

He says teens need to know they’re not alone, that many of their peers are battling depression, too. Trivedi says the problem is critical because suicide is now the third leading cause of death in teens.

“A teenager who was doing well or going along in their academic life suddenly has depression that changes the entire course of their life if we do not take immediate and rapid action,” he says.

A new interest

Jameka Chavers says her daughter’s doing much better now. In fact, Phantasia’s taken up a new hobby.

“I’m teaching myself how to play the guitar. When I listen to songs I pay more attention to the beats in the background and when I hear the guitars in the background, it sounds pretty, so I’m like, 'I wanna do that.' ”

And one of her inspirations? Taylor Swift.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.