Teen depression is more than just sadness, moodiness, or a hormone-induced adolescent rite of passage. Depression is a serious illness that can affect a teen's physical health, relationships, ability to succeed in school, and sense of self-worth.
Depression can feel overpowering and trigger immense hopelessness, but it is treatable. Social support and the right treatment can help people manage their symptoms.
Keep reading to learn more about depression in teens, the signs to look for, and how to help.
The symptoms of teen depression vary among individuals. They can change over time, and teens may only demonstrate some of the symptoms.
Some common symptoms of depression include:
- feeling persistently sad
- trouble feeling happy
- lack of pleasure
- feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness, or humiliation
- feeling anxious
- difficulty sleeping
- sleeping too much
- changes in eating habits
- thoughts of suicide or death
The symptoms of teen depression are the same as those of adult depression. However, teens may not always share their emotions with others, which means that parents or caregivers may only notice a pattern of anger or withdrawal.
Some signs that a teen may be experiencing depression include:
- the sudden abandonment of once-beloved activities
- spending the majority of their time alone
- neglecting friends or a romantic partner
- unexplained anger that goes beyond typical adolescent rebellion
- a sudden change in school performance
- sleeping significantly more than usual
- changes in eating habits
- complaining about various aches and pains that have no apparent medical cause
Teens can be notoriously moody. They may face pressure at home and school, while also struggling to find an identity and form relationships. They could also feel overwhelmed by the emotional demands of adolescence.
Some parents and caregivers mistake depression for typical teen moodiness. Some differences between the two include:
- Teens may have lots of mood swings, including shifts toward happy or elated behavior, whereas teens with depression will display an extreme pattern of anger, sadness, or withdrawal.
- Typically, teens will try to establish an identity separate from that of their family. They may not enjoy family events and might be angry with their parents or caregivers. However, they tend to try to formulate and establish this new identity with their friends. Teens with depression, on the other hand, may also withdraw from their friends.
- Naturally, teens may experience periods of intense sadness or anger following a loss or trauma. However, when these feelings last longer than 2 weeks or arise out of nowhere, they may signal depression.
- Teens may have different personalities, depending on where they are and who they are with at the time. They may act one way at home and differently at school or with friends. Teens with depression, however, may show signs of depression in many different contexts or deliberately avoid people and places that demand a performance of happiness.
The most serious complication of depression is suicide. Teens who do not get help may spiral into hopelessness, increasing the risk of self-harm and even suicide.
Some other potential complications for a teen with depression include:
- legal issues, such as truancy charges if a teen misses school or even criminal prosecution for angry teens who get into fights
- fewer college options if depression affects a teen's academic performance
- social isolation and relationship problems
- health problems, if a teen neglects their health
- sleep issues
- headaches, stomachaches, and other unexplained aches and pains
- substance misuse
- running away
- If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or the local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Depression is a complex illness, and no single treatment works for everyone. Teens with depression may benefit from psychotherapy, but they might also require medication to help regulate the theorized chemical imbalances in the brain that experts believe to result in depression. Treatment will often involve a combination of therapy and medication.
Many different medications are available for depression, most of which are prescription antidepressants.
Different antidepressants will have various effects on each individual, so a teen with depression may have to try several before finding one that works well for them.
It is important to be aware that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require many antidepressants to carry a black box warning of increased suicide risk in young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 years.
A therapist or doctor will help find the most suitable medication for the person.
Psychotherapy is often very helpful and effective. As with medication, there are many different types of psychotherapy. Some of the more common examples are:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns and teaching the individual to recognize and cope with these negative thoughts.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT): IPT focuses on teaching individuals to evaluate their interactions with other people so that they can improve how they relate to others.
- Psychodynamic therapy: This type of therapy focuses on an individual's unconscious processes and on understanding feelings stemming from past experiences.
Other treatment options
Some other treatment options include:
- Lifestyle changes: Some teens might get relief from exercise or healthful eating. For most, a supportive community that does not stigmatize their illness can help.
- Family counseling: Family counseling can help family members better support the teen and identify any family dynamics that may contribute to depression.
- Brain stimulation: Brain stimulation is a group of treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy, that stimulate the brain in an attempt to "reset" it. Doctors usually only recommend this approach when several other treatments have failed, and because of this, it tends not to be the first-line choice for adolescents with depression.
- Psychoeducation: This form of education about mental health and mental illness works best when the entire family learns together, and parents and caregivers commit to learning about a teen's mental health needs.
- Complementary medicine: Some teens get good results from yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, chiropractic, or massage. It is safer to use these options in conjunction with traditional depression therapies, rather than as a substitute.
Researchers once thought that it was impossible to prevent depression, but new research suggests that this might not be the case. However, doctors are still unsure as to which specific strategies might prevent depression.
Certain protective factors may reduce the risk of depression. Parents and caregivers can create a supportive, abuse-free family environment, as an absence of trauma and abuse seems to reduce the risk of depression.
Additionally, access to prompt, quality treatment can reduce the risk of relapse in teens with a history of depression.
Depression is not just a bad mood, and it certainly is not a choice. It is a complex medical condition that requires medical treatment.
Parents or caregivers should see a family doctor or pediatrician for a referral to a mental health expert any time a teen shows signs of depression.
If a teen is already receiving treatment, it is best to seek a second opinion or contact the treatment provider if the:
- symptoms of depression seem to worsen
- side effects of the medication are unbearable for the teen
- teen shows no signs of improvement after several months of treatment
- teen becomes suicidal
Parents and caregivers who think that their teen may have depression should first learn as much as they can about depression. Some important facts to know include:
- Depression is not a choice, and a teen cannot think or work their way out of it.
- Depression is not a moral failing.
- Judgment, punishment, and nagging will not help but may make depression worse.
- Many teens will feel uncomfortable discussing their feelings with their parents or caregivers.
- Depression causes intense feelings of shame and guilt, so it is important to avoid shaming teens, dismissing their problems, or demeaning their emotions.
Family and friends cannot cure a teen's depression. The teen is likely to need professional help. Parents and caregivers should help them find a therapist who specializes in teen health issues and is willing to listen without judgment.
It is important to involve the teen in the therapist selection process, as they must feel comfortable confiding in this person.
Other ways to support teens with depression include:
- Listening without judgment: Teens need someone with whom they can share their emotions. Do not shame them for those emotions or tell them what to do.
- Focusing on positives: Many parents and caregivers have a difficult relationship with their teens. Despite this, say something positive about the teen every day.
- Accepting the teen as they are: Do not tell them to be positive, to adopt a specific depression treatment approach, or to stop complaining.
- Advocating for the teen: Many people with depression need to try several treatment strategies before they find one that works. If the first medication or therapist is ineffective, help the teen find an alternative option.
Depression can make life feel unbearable for teens. The effects may also extend to parents and caregivers, who find themselves trapped in conflict with a teen who seems resistant to making any positive changes in their life.
It is important to remember that depression is not the teen's fault. Treatment can improve the quality of life for an entire family.
In most cases, the best action to take is to avoid judgment and stigma and seek help from a mental health professional.