Maddie Jarzen thrives on school sports, plays flute in the school band and was energized earlier this month when she won a close election for student council president.
But only a few months ago, all the things 13-year-old Maddie loves so much about Milton Middle School seemed totally out of reach.
Maddie suffers from a condition that, when left untreated, causes extreme sadness. It’s called premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD.
The disorder caused her to feel so hopeless that she tried to take her life—twice.
Today, Maddie is resolute about telling her story.
She wants others to know about the disorder and the dangerous, dark place it can take a person.
She does not want young women to end their lives over something that will pass.
“Don’t let a mood ruin your entire life,” Maddie said.
Her transparency is especially timely when statistics show a sharp rise in suicide rates among all youth, with a notable jump among young females.
Researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, released results of a study earlier this year showing that suicide rates for girls ages 10 to 14 increased almost 13% from 2007 to 2016.
The study did not determine what is driving the troubling trend.
Maddie has another reason for speaking out:
“I’m the first openly gay student council president at the middle school and the first female one in seven years,” she said. “I think about how, if I had ended my life in spring, I wouldn’t have gotten to make this happen. And I’m really proud of where I am now.”
Suicide statistics of sexual-minority youth are even more alarming than those of their heterosexual peers.
Sexual-minority youth are three times more likely than heterosexual peers to attempt suicide. Transgender youth six times more likely. Both statistics are from a 2018 article in JAMA Pediatrics about LGBT teens and suicide risk.
Maddie’s parents, Tracy Douglas and Robert Jarzen, are proud of their daughter’s desire to help others.
“No one is immune from mental-health challenges,” Douglas said. “The more we talk about them, the less they will be stigmatized.”
Something is wrong
Maddie’s parents knew something was terribly wrong when their normally even-tempered child began isolating herself and having extreme mood swings.
“We saw her being very, very irritable, which was completely unlike Maddie,” Douglas said.
They tied the behavior to her monthly menstrual cycle but had no idea how profoundly she felt despair.
They offered many times to take Maddie to see a counselor, but she kept saying she was fine.
Maddie described her feelings at the time as being like “there was nothing at all that existed except a really deep sadness” with no way out of it.
At the hospital emergency room, a social worker put a name to Maddie’s despair after her second suicide attempt.
Maddie’s parents were relieved to have a diagnosis so they could figure out how to help their daughter.
Douglas, who is a mental health therapist, was unfamiliar with PMDD.
“I was honestly shocked as both a woman and a mental health therapist that I’d never heard of this before,” Douglas said. “And I wonder just how many women are struggling terribly without knowing that this is a real condition that responds very well to treatment.”
Parents urge frank talk
Typically with PMDD, symptoms appear the week before a woman’s period starts.
“Symptoms can be exactly like those we saw in Maddie and also can include low energy, trouble sleeping, feeling out of control, muscle pain, cramps, headaches and trouble thinking,” Douglas said.
Up to 8% of women have the disorder, and about 15% of them attempt suicide, according to information from Harvard Medical School.
Maddie takes medicine to ease the symptoms and is monitored by her primary care doctor. She is also acutely aware of her moods and knows when she needs to talk to her parents. Often she’ll turn to music or drawing to help her feel better.
Douglas and Jarzen urge parents to have frank conversations with their children about suicide.
“Robert and I have had talks all throughout our children’s lives about good mental health and about challenges that can arise with depression and anxiety,” Douglas said.
Their four children range in age from 12 to 16. Three, including Maddie, are adopted.
“We’ve understood how genetics can play a role in mental health, so we have been extra on top of educating our children about addiction, depression and suicidality,” Douglas said. “It’s a reality that suicide has touched so many of our lives, so I think by talking openly about it, we’re letting our kids know they can come to us about it.”
She said Maddie “absolutely saved her life by coming to us when she did…”
Douglas advised parents to “really trust your gut about when you feel something’s wrong with your child’s mental well-being.”
“Prioritize safety over feelings of uncertainty and get professional help,” she said, emphasizing the importance of early intervention.
Family members have educated themselves about PMDD and rely on each other to stay in touch with how Maddie is doing.
“Maddie’s brothers and sisters will come to me to let me know when they see behavior that is out of the ordinary or mood changes that happen suddenly,” Douglas said.
If Maddie is having a bad day, Douglas keeps her daughter close to home and sometimes literally close to her while they read or watch TV.
At school, Maddie said she goes out of her way to reach out to students who appear to spend a lot of time by themselves.
“I say hi to everyone,” Maddie said. “They usually look at me like, ‘Why are you saying hi to me?’” Eventually, we become friends. Then they become friends with my friends.”
The compassionate teen understands that middle school can be rough.
“I want to be inclusive,” Maddie said. “I don’t think people should be alone.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.