teenage girlWay back in the 1970’s, when I was a teenager, the only depression we knew about was the one in 1929 that made our parents and grandparents tightwads. Back then, teenagers with depression either hid it (like I did), self-medicated (like I did) or were loners – kids who did not fit in.

So when I heard a local couple who had lost their son to bipolar was underwriting Johns Hopkins’ ADAP program at local schools, I had to ask…”What if this had been around when I was in high school?”

The Adolescent Depression Awareness Program is brilliantly simple. It’s common sense at its finest. ADAP provides teachers with a curriculum to use on on how to teach their students about depression.“Through education we will increase awareness about depression and the need for evaluation and treatment.”

  • Interactive lectures and discussions
  • Video of teenagers describing their experiences with depression and bipolar disorder
  • Homework and video assignments to reinforce key points
  • Group interactive activities to teach the key message that depression is a common, treatable, medical illness.

This should not be controversial but teaching teens anything about their health can be absurdly controversial. Just say the word”condom” in in some parts of the country and you’re just asking for an inquisition by the PTA.

Besides having the reputation of Johns Hopkins behind the program, ADAP has taken much of the controversy out of the debate: They don’t screen the kids for depression – something that seriously upsets Scientologists. (I will probably get a ton of comments for even mentioning this.)

“We don’t ask them a question about themselves,” said Dr. Karen Swartz, who heads ADAP at Johns Hopkins. Not surprisingly, it’s the parents who cause the biggest problems – especially those parents who refuse to believe that depression is a medical condition and that their child is mentally ill.

“Deciding it doesn’t exist does not change the fact that it exists,” Dr. Swartz said. “If you have the illness you have the illness and you’re going to have worse grades and behavioral problems.”

For me, the litmus test of any mental health education program is whether it recognizes and teaches about dual-diagnosis. I am dual-diagnosed and when I did a timeline of my life after my diagnosis I could clearly see that my drinking and drugging began when my depression and hypomania turned me into Sylvia Plath’s stoned twin – at about age 15.

Yes, ADAP does teach about dual-diagnosis and self-medicating – not only with drugs and alcohol but with other substances and behaviors, such as eating disorders. It’s not extensive instruction about the co-mingling of addiction and depression and bipolar, just enough to let the parents, teachers and kids know that IF ALL YOUR ILLNESSES ARE NOT TREATED, YOU ARE SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR RELAPSE AND FAILURE. (Take it from me, the girl who rode that merry-go-round for a few decades while swigging on a bottle of chardonnay/Corona/Veuve/Boones Farm/peach schnapps/vodka/wine coolers…)

I learned about ADAP from Dusty and Joyce Sang, who created a foundation to honor their only child, Ryan, who died of bipolar disorder. Here in Palm Beach county, where Ryan went to school, the Sangs are underwriting the cost of ADAP training at 4 private schools this year. Their hope is to get ADAP into the curriculum of every school in the county – public and private.

To date, more than 10,000 students in 47 schools in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Minnesota, North Carolina, & Washington, D.C use the ADAP curriculum. Best of all – ADAP is free. Thanks to underwriters like Joyce and Dusty Sang, not one school has had to pay for the  program.

I’m not one to sit around and “what if…?” the day away. It serves no purpose. What matters to me now is that kids like me will get a shot at a happy, healthy life when they are still young. They won’t have to wait until they are middle-aged to figure it out.

The only problem with ADAP – and it’s not really a “problem” per se – is that you never know if and when it works. You can’t count how many arrests, overdoses or suicides it will prevent. But it will. I know that. I really, really know that.

And that makes me very, very happy.

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.