A Double-Whammie for Troubled Adoptees

Depression and Violence in Teens

By Laurie Udesky
 

Depression often lurks just beneath the surface of even the most violent act. "If you do a role play with batterers and freeze the action before the lashing out and ask them how they feel, they'll say they feel betrayed, unloved. There's a millisecond of tolerance for those depressive feelings, and then the man flips up into dominance rage and lashes out," says Terrence Real, a Cambridge-based psychotherapist who works with perpetrators of abuse.

 It might seem that such rage disappears with the onset of depression, but studies show that's not the case. According to a recent report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, about one in three depressed people are also openly hostile. In addition, many depressed people have "anger attacks" -- characterized by a racing heart beat, sweating, hot flashes, and a tightness in the chest -- in response to even minor irritations. More than 60 percent of depressed patients who have anger attacks say they have physically or verbally attacked others during their fits of rage, according to the report.

 Equally disturbing, the high level of violence in the United States encourages teens to act out in violent ways, experts say. The U.S. Surgeon General's 2001 mental health report on youth and violence noted that by the time they've reached adolescence, 16 million teens in this country "have witnessed some form of violent assault, including robbery, stabbing, shooting, murder, or domestic abuse." Discussing the rise in youth violence, the report concluded tersely: "What adults do to children and to each other, children will also do."  

Glamorized violence

Real takes this argument a step further. In the United States unrealistic bravado -- or retaliation for perceived wrongs -- lies at the very heart of male identity, according to Real, whose latest book is entitled I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, a compelling study of the roots of violence in men and boys.

 "There's been an overall escalation in the culture supporting the expression of violence as a glamorous thing. It's a core idea of manliness in America; if you're victimized, you can right the wrong through lashing out at the victimizer," he says.  

Real adds that recent movies such as the Terminator films, as well as video games and other forms of entertainment that glorify extreme and murderous acts, fuel the acceptance of violence as noble. The teenagers who've recently committed heinous acts of violence against their classmates, he concludes, "are heroes in their own minds, taking heroic revenge."

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