Depression is a medical condition affecting someone’s moods or emotions. It can cause both psychological and physical symptoms, and it is not an attitude that someone can control. About 1 in 5 teens suffers with depression. When teen depression goes untreated, the outcome may be serious, and result in poor performance at school, troubled relationships, increased rates of substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, increased rates of physical illness, and general decreased enjoyment of life. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide, one of the leading causes of death for teens in the United States.
Although depression is highly treatable, 70% of depressed teens do not get the right (or any) treatment. When adults feel depressed, they have the ability to go seek help and they can do it privately if they choose. On the other hand, youth must rely on parents, teachers, or other caregivers to recognize their suffering and get them the treatment they need. Additionally, it’s hard for parents to know whether their teen is experiencing depression or just the normal irritability and moodiness that goes along with adolescence. It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of teen depression so that you can help children get the help they need.
Symptoms of Depression
Teenagers with depression do not necessarily appear sad, nor do they always withdraw from others, which is what the general population would consider as the major symptoms of depression. Sometimes the only sign is a noticeable change in their thinking and behavior. Symptoms that people have when they’re depressed can include:
- depressed mood or sadness most of the time (for what may seem like no reason)
- lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
- inability to enjoy things that used to bring pleasure
- withdrawal from friends and family
- irritability, anger, aggression or rage
- inability to concentrate and/or memory loss
- significant weight loss or gain and/or change in eating habits
- significant change in sleep patterns (inability to fall asleep or sleep excessively)
- irresponsible behavior — for example, forgetting obligations, being late for classes, skipping school or sudden drop in grades
- feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- difficulty making decisions
- complaints of pains, including headaches, stomachaches, low back pain, or fatigue (with no known medical cause)
- no motivation, pessimism and indifference (not caring about anything in the present or future)
- criminal behaviors, such as DUI or shoplifting
- thoughts of death or suicide
When someone has five or more of these symptoms most of the time for 2 weeks or longer, that person is probably depressed.
Causes of Depression
There is no one cause of depression, and different factors affect different people in different ways. Some possible causes include:
- Traumatic event. Any event that causes distress, such as divorce, remarriage, the loss of a loved one or pet, witnessing violence, or a natural disaster.
- Social situations. Bullying, poverty in the family, domestic violence, peer pressure, breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, and other negative social situations can place teens under a lot of pressure.
- Genetics. Studies show that depression runs in families. Keep in mind, though, that teens who have depression in their family will not necessarily get the illness, and teens without a history of depression in their family can still get the disorder.
- Medical conditions. Sometimes depression can be a sign of another problem, such as hypothyroidism or drug use.
If you suspect that a teenager in your life is suffering from depression, take action right away.
- Talk to your teen about your concerns. There may be a specific cause, or they may have an explanation, for why he or she is acting a certain way. Opening up the lines of communication lets your teenager know you care and that you are available to talk about the situation. This is the time to use your active listening skills and avoid nagging or yelling.
- Keep it private. Respect your teen’s privacy and don’t express your concerns to anyone outside the immediate family.
- Make an appointment for your teen to see their doctor. There could be a physical reason for your teenager to be showing some of the symptoms you are seeing. Your provider may be able to discuss the situation with your teen, rule out a medical reason for the behavior, or recommend a counselor. Be sure to check your medical history and inform the doctor of anyone else in your family who has suffered from depression.
- If your doctor rules out medical reasons for the behavior, schedule an appointment with a counselor. Do not ignore these signs. Many times, adults do not feel certain that the youth they’re concerned about is depressed and are afraid of making things worse or they hope that the symptoms will just go away. But honestly, even if the troublesome behaviors and emotions you’re seeing are not depression, they are signs of a problem that needs to be addressed. Depression is very damaging when left untreated, but it’s also one of the most treatable conditions. Therapists and other professionals can help. In fact, about 80% of people who get help for their depression have a better quality of life.
- If your teen talks about suicide or attempts suicide, get help IMMEDIATELY. Your local community should have a 24-hour crisis hotline for mental health emergencies. You can also call 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) for help, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. If you want to learn more about the signs of suicide and how to prevent it, visit our previous blog: “Preventing Teen Suicide”.
Covenant House’s Nineline
National Suicide Hotline
Guidelines (NJ Suicide Hotline)
In Somerset County, New Jersey, try:
Family and Community Services