Unveiling the Unspoken: Identifying Hidden Indicators of Depression in Naga Adolescents

Kohima: How can we, as mental health advocates and therapists, break the silence surrounding mental health in Nagaland?

BY | Monday, 2 October, 2023

Did you know that depression is oftentimes called the “invisible illness” because its symptoms can go unnoticed by those around us? While someone may be wrestling internally, their friends, family, or even teachers may not recognize the signs. That is particularly true for adolescents and young adults, a specific age group where mental health challenges are becoming more common.

As a mental health advocate working with young individuals in various schools and colleges in Nagaland for over two years, I’ve seen firsthand how vital it is to break the silence surrounding this issue. Can you imagine how our society stigmatizes topics like anxiety, depression, social anxiety, suicide, and mental health in general? It’s interesting to note that I have more clients reaching out to me through my social media platform, @mentalhealth.mentor / Mr. Dae, than I do when discussing these issues in a classroom setting, especially in subjects like Psychology.

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As a mentor, psychologist, and someone who initially tried to learn Nagamese, I couldn’t help but notice that in our everyday conversations, we often casually label anything that does not conform to societal norms as “Pagla” or “Pagli” (crazy), “75,” “99,” “crack,” or “budhhu” (fool). It is us, unintentionally, who contribute to making it even more challenging for young people to discuss their mental health, even with their friends and family.

Our society has conditioned us to be fearful of opening up about mental health because we know the negative labels that often come with it. I want to share the crucial discoveries I have made during my two years of providing mental health counselling in Nagaland. Some words I will include are based on my conversations with young clients, and their privacy is protected.

Additionally, we will dig and explore the hidden signs of depression that adolescents might show, aiming to increase awareness and support among family and caregivers.

1. “I don’t feel well” 

This simple statement might be a way of asking for help. Adolescents who are dealing with depression may use vague words like this to show that they’re not feeling okay inside. It’s important to ask them more questions and encourage them to talk about what’s bothering them.

2. “I’m just tired of everything” 

Feeling very tired is something many people with depression go through. When a young person starts avoiding friends, often cancels plans, or stops responding, it could mean they are emotionally drained.

3. “I need to go/visit someplace new/I want to travel”

Wanting something different, especially when there’s a sudden urge to get away, might be how some young folks cope with what’s bothering them inside. Encouraging open conversations about their feelings, and talking openly about how they feel can make a big difference.

4. “I’m not doing well today” 

Just like how we often say “I’m fine” when people ask how we’re doing, young people might drop subtle hints like “I’m not doing well today” to show they’re having a tough time. It’s something many of us can relate to, haven’t we all said “I’m fine” even when we were going through a rough patch in life? Paying attention to these signals can help.

5. “I’m surviving” 

Sometimes, young people might make it sound like they’re just “surviving” or “hanging in there.” It can be their way of saying they’re going through some tough stuff emotionally. It’s kind of like when people jokingly say “I’m surviving” when someone asks how life is going.

6. “I’m so exhausted” 

Depression can make you feel physically tired, even if you’ve had enough sleep. Sometimes, young people might say, “I’ll sleep it off” when they feel tired. It’s a common response. But it’s important to remember that ignoring the root cause might provide temporary relief, but it won’t solve the problem in the long run.

7. “I feel so frustrated and cannot control my anger” 

It’s really important to understand that depression doesn’t always show up as sadness. Sometimes, it can make you feel very angry and frustrated. Recognizing this can be super important for getting help early.

You know, I saw a video online recently that explained it well. It said, “When you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice, not apple or anything else. Similarly, when someone says they get easily frustrated and can’t control their anger, it’s like something in their life is squeezing them, and what’s inside is coming out as frustration and anger.”

8. “I always ‘mess up’ or ‘ruin things’” 

Adolescents may struggle to articulate their emotions, It’s their way of trying to explain their emotions, even though they might not have the right words. When someone says this, it’s really important to take them seriously and offer your support. Remember, it can be tough to put feelings into words.

9. “You don’t understand, no one understands” 

When young people talk about feeling isolated and like they don’t fit in, it’s often a sign that they’re going through a tough time. In these moments, they need understanding and connection.

It’s good to remember not to be too direct, like saying “I understand” or “I’ve been there.” Instead, you can say something like, “I might not fully understand what you’re going through, but I’m here to listen, and I’ll do my best to see things from your perspective.” This shows you’re there to support them without making assumptions.

10. “I feel like I don’t belong anywhere” 

When young people say things like “I feel like I don’t belong anywhere,” it’s a strong indication that they’re struggling with feelings of isolation and disconnection. This statement reveals a deep sense of loneliness and alienation, which can be quite distressing.

Therapist Notes: 

In my experience counselling Naga youth, it’s become evident that many adolescents express their struggles in ways that may not immediately catch our attention. These “invisible” signs, such as shifts in behaviour or subtle comments, can be their way of reaching out for support.

As a therapist, it is crucial to be attentive and non-judgmental. Often, they drop hints about their emotional battles through their words or actions. They might not directly say, “I’m depressed,” but they convey it indirectly.

Building trust is key. Naga society, like many others, has its own set of norms and stigmas surrounding mental health. Adolescents might fear opening up due to these cultural expectations. Our role is to create a safe, confidential space where they feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts.

Let’s consider this: How can we, as mental health advocates and therapists, break the silence surrounding mental health in Nagaland? How can we make it easier for Naga youth to seek help and talk openly about their struggles?

Remember, change starts with conversation, understanding, and providing the support they need.

Author Daewon Nongrem is a Counselling Psychologist at the Department of Youth Resources and Sports, Kohima, Nagaland 

Social handle @mentalhealth.mentor or Mr Dae 

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