A pair of back-to-back teen overdose deaths in 2016 rocked this tight community to its core and left parents wondering how to tell the difference between typical adolescent angst and when something is seriously wrong. “It’s difficult,” says Park City psychiatrist Dr. Melissa Lopez-Larson. “The teen years are a time when a lot of personality changes take place.”
Most parents are aware of the well-publicized warning signs of teen depression: a sudden change in peer group; loss of appetite; increased isolation; abrupt change in how they dress; increased anger or aggressiveness; engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as drinking, lying, or getting into trouble; declining grades; sudden onset of headaches or stomachaches; or quitting formerly beloved activities.
But Lopez-Larson recommends parents take note of drastic behavior differences with regard to their own child’s baseline. “What’s atypical for one kid may not be atypical for another,” she explains, adding that parents need to recognize that increased stress—even positive stress—can lead to anxiety and depression. And in a sports-dominant town like Park City, head injuries can precipitate mental health concerns, too.
Fortunately, parents are not alone as they attempt to read their teen’s behavior. The 2016 tragedy mobilized educators, law enforcement, local government, and community members to create the Summit County Mental Wellness Alliance, which now facilitates a wide range of mental-health and substance-abuse treatment and prevention programs for area kids and adults. “The most important key,” says Lopez-Larson, who is an SCMWA member, “is to listen to your kids. Keep those lines of communication open no matter what.”