Are you worried that your teenager might be struggling with depression? When does “normal” teenage moodiness warrant further investigation? Brisbane counselling professional, Corey Human, explains.
Depression is a serious mental illness that is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors. It is normal to feel depressed from time to time, but when this unhappiness lasts longer than 2 weeks and includes a loss of interest in life and activities, it is possible for the person to be diagnosed with depression.
In a 2007 study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, quoted by the Black Dog Institute, one in four young people are living with a mental disorder and a further 9% of young people between the ages of 16 – 24 have high levels of psychological distress.
It is also stated that suicide is currently the main cause of death in young people aged 15 to 24. This is particularly distressing given than depression is a treatable condition, but according to statistics, only 20% of teenagers struggling with depression receive help (Black Dog Institute, n.d.).
Lisa Wolff (1999, p9) states that although depression has been around since the beginning of the human race, it is possibly still the most under and misdiagnosed disease, because it varies from one person to the other.
How is Depression Different for Teenagers?
It is interesting to note the differences between depression in adults, and depression in teens.
Depressed adults normally tend to direct their feelings inward, while depressed young people direct their feelings of anger towards family and friends by lashing out at them.
Another difference is that instead of withdrawing from people around them like most adults with depression do, the depressed teen will draw attention to themselves with disruptive behaviour like getting into fights or vandalising property.
Smith and Segal (2017, p1) discuss teenagers’ depression symptoms by saying that unlike adults who have the ability to seek help for depression on their own, teenagers have to rely on parents, teachers and carers to recognise depression symptoms and assist them in getting the help that they need.
Another difference is that depression in teenagers is more difficult to identify, as the signs are more obvious in adults.
The Causes of Depression
The underlying causes of depression are varied and cannot always be identified. There are many factors that can add to causing depression, for instance, genetic predisposition, traumatic events and environmental conditions such as living in a dysfunctional household. Prolonged stress makes teens more vulnerable for depression (John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, n.d.).
It is interesting to note that teens with depression do not necessarily appear to be depressed. Some of the prominent symptoms teens with depression may exhibit are irritability, anger and agitation.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Smith and Segal (2017, p. 1&2) list the following signs and symptoms of depression:
- Sadness and/or hopelessness.
- Irritability, anger and hostility.
- Tearfulness or being very emotional.
- Lack of motivation and enthusiasm.
- Withdrawal from friends and family.
- Poor academic performance.
- Drastic changes in sleeping and eating habits.
- Being restless and agitated.
- Having feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
- Struggles with concentration.
- Being tired and lacking energy.
- Aches and pains that cannot be explained.
- Thought of death or suicide.
- King (n.d.) adds another sign, stating that a teenager with depression is also very sensitive to criticism. Because they have feelings of worthlessness, it makes them very vulnerable to criticism, rejection and failure.
Hammen (2009) of the University of California explains that although most depression cases are due to stressful events and stressful circumstances, it is very important that therapists also understand the context of the stress being suffered. In an article called a Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression, Mike King listed the following seven impacts of teenage depression on the teenager and the teen’s family and friends.
The Impacts of Teenage Depression
- Problems at school. Depression causes low energy and low concentration which can lead to poor attendance, a drop in grades and a decrease in quality of school work.
- Running away. Many of the teenagers that are diagnosed with depression, tend to either run away or talk about running away. This is a way for the depressed teen to cry for help.
- Drug and alcohol abuse. In an attempt to self-medicate, many teens with depression tend to turn to drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately drugs and alcohol make the symptoms of depression worse.
- Low self-esteem. Depression can trigger feelings of ugliness, shame, guilt and unworthiness.
- Internet addiction. In an attempt to escape reality and their problems, the depressed young person turns to the internet. Unfortunately the large amount of time spent online, only increases the teenager’s isolation.
- Reckless behaviour. Some depressed teenagers tend to engage in high-risk behaviours such as driving under the influence of alcohol and driving recklessly, or having unsafe sex.
- Violence. When a teen is depressed due to bullying they can turn to violence themselves.
Treatment for depression is very effective but because many teenagers are not diagnosed, they do not receive the correct treatment (Ruffin, 2009). There can be various reasons why teens are not diagnosed with depression, the main one being that the teenage years are renowned for being physically, emotionally and psychologically taxing, so the teen’s behaviour can be dismissed as moodiness (MN ADOPT, n.d.).
Treating Depression in Young People
As previously mentioned, depression is a treatable condition and there are various options for teenagers. A combination of treatments can often work well.
Treatments include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and other talk therapies; family therapy; and also supportive education for parents and carers (John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, n.d.).
It is possible with mild to moderate cases of depression, that talk therapy (CBT) alone can resolve the teen’s depression.
If talk therapy does not resolve the matter, medication has to be considered. It is advisable with teenage depression to try talk therapy before medication. In severe cases, antidepressants can be used to ease symptoms of depression – but there are many side effects and a number of safety concerns specifically when used by children and young adults (King, n.d.).
When Antidepressants aren’t Working
If you notice any of the following in your teenager using antidepressants, it is advisable that you seek professional help urgently:
- New or more suicidal thoughts.
- Failed suicide attempts.
- New or falling deeper into depression.
- New or increased anxiety.
- Feelings of agitation and restlessness.
- Panic attacks.
- Increased irritability.
- Being aggressive, angry and violent.
- Acting on dangerous impulses.
- Hyperactivity (King, n.d.).
How to Help Your Teen with Depression
The Minnesota Department of Human Services, MN ADOPT, give some tips how to help your teen with depression:
- Offer support. The teenager has to know you are there, and that you are fully and unconditionally committed to help them.
- Be gentle but persistent. Do not give up if the teen shuts you out. Be respectful of the teen’s comfort level but still show that you are willing to listen and are concerned about them.
- Listen without lecturing. Do not criticise and pass judgement on the teen. Keep communication open. Do not offer advice or set ultimatums.
- Validate feelings. Acknowledge the pain and sadness your teen is experiencing, and do not try and talk them out of depression or say they have to “snap out of it”.
All depression treatments take time and can be overwhelming. The process of recovery is unpredictable but the key to overcoming depression is not to give up. It is possible for the teen to function normally, and live a healthy and productive life when their depression is managed.
Author: Corey Human, B Th (Hons), M Counselling, Dip Youth Work, Dip Youth Justice, Dip Couns, Dip Pentecostal Theology, Dip Ministry. Member of PACFA and CCAA.
Corey Human has nearly 20 years’ experience working with teenagers and young people at risk, or struggling with self esteem, depression, video game addiction and other problems. He provides counselling to adolescents, adults, couples, parents and families in both English and Afrikaans.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Black Dog Institute. (n.d.). Depression in adolescents & young people. Retrieved from http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/defaultsource/factsheets/depressioninadolescents.pdf?sfvrsn=2
- Hammen, C. (2009). Adolescent Depression Stressful Interpersonal Contexts and Risk for Recurrence. CDIR, 18(4), 200 – 204.
- John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (n.d.). Mental Health; the process of managing emotions. Retrieved from http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/psychiatry/specialty_areas/moods/ADAP/docs/ADAP-Booklet_FINAL.pdf
- King, M. (n.d.). Parent’s guide to Teen Depression, recognising the signs and helping your child. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/parents-guide-to-teen-depression.htm
- MN ADOPT. (n.d.). Teen Depression; fact sheet. Retrieved from http://mnadopt.org
- Ruffin, N. (2009). Adolescent Depression. Virginia Cooperative Extension, 350.
- Wolff, L. (1999). Teen Depression. In Teen issues. San Diego: Lucent Books.