George was in middle school when something inside him changed. He was bored in school and had few friends. Sleeping was a challenge. He wished he’d never been born because then he wouldn’t feel so awful. Finally, he spoke up to his parents, and together they realized he might be suffering from depression. They got professional help, and after several months of medication and talk therapy, George began to feel like himself again.
“Kids with depression think nobody else goes through it,” says George, now in college. “You feel like nobody knows you. Having [professionals] who understood what I was going through was helpful.”
Depression in Teens
Depression is a common but serious mental illness. It can range from mild to severe and interfere with your high school student's activities, relationships, and well-being. An estimated 11 percent of adolescents in the U.S. experience depression by the time they turn 18, with girls nearly three times more likely to be affected, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression is under-diagnosed and under-treated; experts say only one in five depressed teenagers gets the help he or she needs.
Teen depression can be hard to recognize. After all, we expect kids to be moody as they face the physical, emotional, and academic pressures and turmoil that accompany growing up. Teenagers with depression don’t “seem themselves”—for example, they’re unusually grouchy or sad, or they’ve lost interest in their normal activities for at least two weeks. Their grades may be slipping, or their appetite, hygiene, or sleep patterns may have changed. Other symptoms include headaches or stomachaches, feelings of despair and worthlessness, and socializing with fewer or different friends.
Depression is much more than a “bad day,” notes Elise Jamison, a 16-year-old from Ohio who was diagnosed with depression at age 14.
“We all have bad days. I get it,” she writes eloquently on HuffPost Teen. “There is a humongous difference between temporary sadness and dissatisfaction with your life and the sinking desperation that is depression. It sucks when you don’t fit in and you are lonely, but that isn’t depression. Depression is the dark emptiness you feel that makes you believe you can contribute nothing to anyone or anything. You feel like your life means nothing to anyone.”
When it comes to causes, depression is still a bit of a mystery. Scientists suspect a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. But experts agree that teen depression can lead to—or be associated with—a host of other problems, such as drug and alcohol use; eat- ing disorders; self-loathing; risky behaviors like cutting, unsafe sex, or driving out of control; violence; and suicide.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of people who take their own lives have an underlying mental illness, often depression, that may be co-occurring with other issues, notes Joanna Bridger, LICSW, Clinical Services Director at Riverside Trauma Center in Needham, MA. Her organization leads trainings across Massachusetts to help schools and communities cope with youth suicides and other traumatic events. Increasingly, programs are taking place around the country to lift the stigma around mental illness and help kids feel less alone.
Providing Help and Hope
There are several types of depression (including major depressive disorder and the milder, but chronic, dysthymia), and treatment depends on the situation. Most teen depression can be treated effectively with antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, or a combination; research in adolescents suggests the combined approach works best. And don’t wait—if you see signs of depression, intervene quickly.
A handful of antidepressants, which act on brain chemicals, are approved for teens, and their use should be closely monitored. Various types of psychotherapy (talk therapy) exist, and it’s important to find a good match, as therapy is a relationship that requires trust and connection. Formal treatment aside, physical activities such as dance, yoga, or team sports can also make a significant difference.
One of the most important things parents can do? Ask, listen, and observe your child’s emotional health on a regular basis, whether or not you suspect a problem, therapists advise.
If your teenager starts showing symptoms, point out the specific behavior—for example, “I noticed you haven’t been seeing your friends as much as you used to, and I’m wondering if something’s going on.” If your teen is being self-destructive, avoid saying, “Don’t do that!” and instead, help him/her understand why they turned to that behavior (it may, for example, provide short-term relief from emotional pain) and whether there are alternatives. “The idea is to engage the prefrontal cortex, the part of their brain that has the capacity for solving problems and thinking rationally,” Bridger explains. “That part is not fully functional when your kid is in distress.”
The bottom line is to have hope, Bridger says. “Let your teenager know that depression is a treatable illness. It is an illness like diabetes. They shouldn’t feel ashamed, and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. There is help.’”
Tips for Parents
- Educate yourself about signs and symptoms of depression, including feeling unusually sad, hopeless, worthless, irritable, angry, anxious, withdrawn, restless, or guilty.
- Notice changes in sleep, appetite, or hygiene; concentration problems; persistent aches and pains; lack of energy; or thoughts about death. Follow up if behaviors last two or more weeks.
- Encourage open communication without pushing. You might say, “If you ever want to talk, I’m here for you, no matter what.”
- Be compassionate, not judgmental.
- Offer hope for getting better.
- Act early. Don’t assume others are handling the problem.
- Take suicidal thoughts or behaviors very seriously.
- Seek help from a healthcare professional, such as your primary-care doctor or a child psychiatrist. Encourage college students to use support services on campus.
- Families for Depression Awareness: www.familyaware.org
- Samariteens: Peer support for teens feeling depressed, lonely, or stressed. 800-252-TEEN (8336) or www.samaritanshope. org
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
- National Institute of Mental Health: www.nimh.nih.gov/health