It's a staggering statistic. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 8 percent of adolescents and 2 percent of children have symptoms of depression. Those numbers increase with age, and it's estimated that 20 percent of teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood.

What worries professionals in the mental health field is that the early onset of depression in children and teenagers is becoming increasingly common, with some seeing it as epidemic.

National Public Radio reports that more college kids than ever --10 percent more than a decade ago -- are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, according to a new study by the American Psychological Association. Another recent study, conducted at Northwestern University, finds one out of every five students who visits a university health center for a routine cold or sore throat turns out to have undiagnosed depression.

No one knows for sure if there are more depressed kids today or if there is just a greater awareness of the problem. What we do know is that it is a harder world to grow up in and that the once held notion of a carefree childhood is just that.

There's no denying that kids today have more freedom, yet they struggle with that freedom. They may be more sophisticated and knowledgeable than their parents were at a similar age, but they are no more equipped to handle the stress or the difficult decisions they will have to make. For all too many kids, it's a pressure cooker world that they're growing up in, one where they will have to confront a wide range of extremely stressful situations.

The cornerstone rite of passage for a teenager is to learn how to separate from their parents while at the same time establishing their own identity. This critical developmental milestone must be accomplished while they are also going through the normal but often confusing biological changes that occur during adolescence.

On top of all that, they have to deal with the everyday palpable pressures to succeed in school -- succeed at fitting in and staying part of the social group of their choice; meet high expectations from parents, teachers and friends; and pressures about having sex and using alcohol and drugs.

Last but not least, their generation has been targeted by the media in a nonstop campaign to market both cool and perfection. Images of cool and perfection are everywhere -- print ads, music videos, video games, television and movies. Who better to market cool and perfection to than adolescents, who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in with the world. The imperative to be cool is such an important part of our society. Image becomes all important while substance takes a backseat and perception becomes reality.

In my work with adolescents I stress that cool is a state of mind, an independent way of thinking and a stamp of originality that has nothing to do with what clothes you wear, what music you listen to, where you sit in the school cafeteria or who you hang out with. Our culture sends out some very powerful messages about how teens should be. I understand it is difficult to resist the images they are constantly being barraged with, and how painful it is to deal with the ridicule that often accompanies being different/not cool.

It's not hard to understand why so many young people reach the breaking point. It becomes a fait accompli, with the pressure cooker finally exploding, spiraling them into a depression. It seems that this generation does not have the built-in optimism about bettering their lives that previous generations had, which would help buffer all the stressors they have to face. They look at the world in dark tones and have diminishing expectations about what lies ahead. Unfortunately, this is exacerbated when they look at their parents' lives and the adult world around them and see the incredible stress and pressure that exists there as well. Sadly, many throw up their hands in disgust and say, "Why bother?"

It is often very difficult for parents to know when their child is depressed, as it is easy to misread symptoms. Many view the teenage years as a period that their child is going through when they will be moody, angry at them and the world and not particularly communicative about what is going on in their lives. It's a phase that they will outgrow. According to Harvard Medical School, storminess, irritability and a quick temper are not abnormal traits for a teenager.

Not every teen who is depressed experiences every symptom. Some may experience a few symptoms, others suffer many and the severity can vary. The American Psychological Association lists the following signs that can indicate a problem and that parents should be aware of:

"¢ Finding little or no pleasure in life;

"¢ Distancing themselves from friends;

"¢ Having sudden outbursts toward people close to them;

"¢ Feeling worthless or extremely guilty;

"¢ Periodic and unexplained shouting and crying;

"¢ Experiencing severe anxiety, panic or fear;

"¢ Having big mood swings or too little or too much energy;

"¢ Experiencing a change in eating or sleeping patterns;

"¢ Losing interest in hobbies or activities;

"¢ Wanting to harm either self or others;

"¢ Sudden unexplainable episodes of fearlessness.

The American Medical Association adds that depressed teens may become aggressive or uncooperative without cause; begin using drugs or alcohol; become promiscuous; cut classes and have a drop in grades; have constant headaches or stomach aches; or tend to ignore personal hygiene.

It is exceedingly important that depressed adolescents go for treatment. Without it, they are at higher risk for school failure, social isolation, substance abuse and suicide, the third leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds. For kids who do get help, the prognosis is increasingly hopeful.

The typical teenager as portrayed on TV shows like "Happy Days," "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best," when life was ostensibly problem-free, would be an anachronism in today's culture, where so many teens are obviously hurting so much.

Is it any wonder that parents of teens today look back at those simpler times wistfully? Those were the days when parents weren't too busy to take time out to be with, talk to and listen to their kids. Nowadays, at a time when children need their parents to be around more than ever before for guidance and a shoulder to lean on, parents are caught up in the cycle of work, more work and trying to catch a little down time of their own.

Parents can provide a lot of emotional support by making their children feel confident, secure and loved. They should also try and communicate a hopeful attitude and teach their children ways to cope with the stress, failures and losses that everyone faces in life. Many kids just don't have the experience to realize they will get through the tough times.

It's important to fine-tune your listening skills and attempt to see and understand your child's perception of the world. As they struggle with the cool and perfect images that the media showcases and try to deal with other people's expectations of who they should be, help your child discover who they are. Help provide them with the tools they need to take control of their lives and make positive choices.

As George Eliot wrote, "It is never too late to be what you might have been." And of course, it is never too early.

Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. E-mail him at barryhalpin@aol.com.