Despite the stereotype of “teenage moodiness”, teenage depression is very real. As teenagers navigate a time period filled with major biological and social-emotional changes, it can be hard to know what is normal adjustment to adolescence and when things cross over into a mental health disorder. Just as your teen is trying to adjust to their new experiences, as a parent you are also faced with finding a balance between wanting to be supportive and giving them space. Teens are exploring their individual interests and personalities in new ways. At the same time, they are navigating new relationships as they begin to understand how they fit into their social worlds.
This blog series is dedicated to helping parents navigate potentially difficult conversations with their teenager(s) about teen depression and suicide, and how to know when and how to seek support that will be well received.
How Common Is Teenage Depression?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2016, over 3.1 million teens between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced at least one episode of depression, with approximately 70% of these teens reporting that their depression had caused severe impairment in their day-to-day lives. Particularly worrisome, 60% of the teenagers who had a depressive episode did not receive any form of therapeutic treatment (either through counseling or medication).
Consequences of Untreated Teenage Depression
Without proper intervention, harmful behaviors can develop from persistent or intense teenage depression, including self-injury and even suicide. Not everyone who experiences teenage depression will engage in these thoughts or actions. However, the risk for self-injury and suicide increases when depression is present and untreated.
A study published in The American Journal of Public Health recently found that about 1 in 10 high-school-aged boys and about 1 in 4 high-school-aged girls engage in self-injury. Nationally, suicide represents the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
Thankfully, there is hope, and it starts with tuning into your teen’s behavior.
Signs & Symptoms of Teenage Depression Parents Should Look For
Depression can look and feel different to everyone, and often, depression in teenagers can seem “masked”. Signs may be subtle, or may present as behavioral challenges or “acting out”. In part due to the effects of their changing brain chemistry and the variations in their personality and social development, it’s important to consider how depression may seem different in an adolescent than it would in an adult. Awareness of both subtle and significant changes in your teen’s mood and behaviors can help you take the appropriate steps toward getting connected to therapeutic supports.
Some signs of depression in adolescence include:
- Persistent sadness or irritability. Your teen may seem down more often than not, have trouble with seeing positivity, or may seem highly emotionally reactive to certain situations.
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies. Skipping out on opportunities to spend time with friends, or missing several extracurricular activities may indicate that they are really not feeling emotionally up to taking part in things that they previously found enjoyable or meaningful.
- Changes in weight or appetite. A significant change in eating habits could mean that something is impacting their emotions and effecting how they are relating to food. This could be that they are eating more or less than usual.
- Changes in sleeping patterns. Similarly to eating patterns, any change (more or less) in sleeping could be a symptom of depression. While adolescents need a significant amount of sleep to support the physical changes they are going through, persistent difficulty with getting out of bed could be problematic. On the other hand, difficulty with falling or staying asleep could also be symptomatic of depression. It all depends on what is typical or out of the ordinary for your teen.
- Loss of energy. Your teen may seem to have lost some of their liveliness, appear sluggish, or be unable to do things whole-heartedly
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions. This may be apparent in a teen “spacing out” often, or seem to be distracted by his or her own thoughts. Trouble at school may follow from this difficulty
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt. This aspect may be hard to detect. Your teen may say things like “it’s all my fault” or “I can never do anything right”. They may seem overly harsh on themselves in response to negative events or setbacks, such as losing a sports match or getting a bad grade. Making broad statements like “I always…” or “I never…” may point to an overwhelmingly negative view of themselves.
- Recurrent thoughts or statements of wanting to die. Suicidal thoughts may or may not be communicated. Verbal indicators may be direct, such as “I wish I were dead”, or indirect, such as “I’m tired of life, I can’t go on anymore”. They may even present as “jokes”, but persist with frequency as a subtle call for help. Behavioral signs can include giving away possessions or appearing to cut themselves off from others.
In our next installment in our series on teenage depression, we will explore the ways in which symptoms of depression may be impacting your teens’ life at school, home, and with their friends.
If you are concerned that your teenager may be struggling with depression, please contact us today to speak with a member of our compassionate team of mental health care coordination professionals. We specialize in providing personalized care coordination services for families to find the appropriate team to help your teenager thrive.
Read the other installations of our Parents Guide to Teenage Depression
Helping Your Teenager Through Depression
Talking to Your Teen About Suicide
Common Myths About Talking to Someone About Suicide