Many teenagers admit experiencing feelings of sadness and anxiety. And with all the hormonal, physical and life changes teenagers experience during puberty, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. However, if these symptoms of depression last longer than two weeks at a time, they could be suffering from clinical depression – a serious mental illness. In fact, some 1 in 8 young men and women experience depression during their teenage years.
The problem is that many parents (and even other teenagers) often mistake depression for just another bout of the blues, fuelling the perception that teenagers are inexplicably "moody". However, teen depression is a serious mental health issue and should be treated as such.
What Causes Teen Depression?
There are many reasons why a teenager might become depressed. Interestingly, teenage girls are more than twice as likely to become depressed than teenage boys. While some depressed teenagers do come from broken homes, this is not the only reason why a teenager might become depressed. Some other possible triggers may include:
- Genetics: Research has shown that people may inherit genes from their parents that make them more susceptible to depression. However, that does not mean everyone who has these genes will become depressed; conversely, not everyone who becomes depressed has a family history of depression.
- Environment: Children who live in poverty, are homeless or come from a community in which violence is an everyday occurrence, may be more likely to experience depression during adolescence. In addition, family life may also play a key role. Children who are abused either physically or emotionally are more likely to become depressed.
- Life Events: The death of a close friend or relative can also trigger depression.
- Medical Conditions: Hormone-related medical conditions related to the thyroid or adrenal glands, as well as chronic pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), may lead to depression.
- Substance Abuse: Abuse of alcohol and drugs by teens is another possible cause of teenage depression.
Detection: Signs & Symptoms of Teen Depression
Unfortunately, many adults assume that because teens look physically mature, that they are also able to express themselves in an adult-like manner. In fact, up until recently this assumption was an obstacle in the diagnosis of depression amongst teenagers, as most doctors simply were not reading the signs of depression apparent in most youth.
While most adults are able to articulate and recognize feelings of depression, teenagers tend to internalize – or somatize (express their emotions through their body in the form of "headaches" or "stomach pain") – these feelings, as most teens lack the adequate vocabulary and confidence to express themselves openly.
However, over the past couple of decades much progress has been made in recognizing signs of depression in adolescents. If you or a teen you know is experiencing five or more of the following symptoms for a period of more than two weeks, you should seek medical advice:
- (Seemingly unwarranted) feelings of sadness, anxiety or hopelessness
- Loss of interest in food or overeating resulting in significant, rapid weight loss or gain
- Persistent fatigue, insomnia or excessive sleeping during the day
- Feelings of physical pain including headaches, stomach or low back pain
- Withdrawal from family, friends and/or activities previously enjoyed by the individual
- Inability to concentrate
- Rebellious behavior and/or poor academic performance
- Pessimism and/or indifference about the present or future
- Engaging in risky behavior such as promiscuous sexual activity or alcohol/substance abuse
- Preoccupation with suicide and/or death
Warning Signs of Teen Suicide
The teenage suicide rate in the United States has increased to what medical experts are calling "epidemic proportions". Indeed, some 500,000 teens attempt suicide each year – with nearly 5,000 succeeding. However, there are warning sings friends and family can look out for, including:
- Verbal threats of committing suicide
- Preparations for death including the drafting of a will, goodbye letters or giving away prized possessions
- Expressions of hopelessness/pessimism for the future
- Loss of interest in his/her own life
If you notice any of the preceding symptoms, you should report them immediately to a medical professional.
Treatments for Depression Amongst Teens
Treatment for teenage depression does not differ greatly from adult depression, and is generally made up of a combination of psycho (or talk) therapy and antidepressant medications. The therapy component may include the whole family if the family is viewed as the source of the teen’s depression.
It is worth noting that some of the out-of-town programs parents may be tempted to enroll depressed teenagers in – such as boot camps or wilderness programs – may actually be more harmful than helpful. Because they use non-medical staff and confrontational tactics, they may not be sensitive enough to get to the root of a teenager’s depression.
In addition, teens who are depressed will often engage in rebellious behavior, which may lead them to become involved in crime. Parents of teenagers involved in such situations may be advised to let their children experience the consequences of their actions. The problem, however, is that without intervention the teenager only becomes exposed to more like-minded individuals and is afforded less opportunity to develop himself – both academically and emotionally.
According to medical experts, treatment for depression is best sought in a medical context, away from such negative influences.
Advice for Parents
Parenting teenagers is no easy task. However, establishing good communication with your teen is probably one of the best ways to ensure she will come to you in the event that she is experiencing symptoms of depression. To do this, try practicing the following:
- Give your teen some breathing space. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is important to let your child experience life and make mistakes. This will improve their confidence and help them to make more informed decisions
- Ease the pressure. It can be frustrating trying to get a teenager to chip in around the house, but constant pressure may only exacerbate the issue. Don’t expect them to do exactly what you say all the time.
- Shame and punishment can foster feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, so try replacing these disciplinary tactics with positive reinforcement for good behavior.
- Let you teen find herself. Don’t force your teenager to go down the path you envision for them. Instead give them a chance to get to know themselves and develop their own life plan.
Finally, be sure to listen to your teenager when she talks to you. Don’t take what she says lightly – especially if the talk turns negative. In fact, your time and your ability to listen are probably the best gifts you can give your teenager as she lives through this emotionally volatile period of her life.