According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately one out of five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder, and nearly one-third show symptoms of depression.
Symptoms of depression in adolescents aren’t always easy to identify because they often appear as normal adolescent behavior. Early warning signs are likely to include: irritability, fatigue, changes in sleep patterns, changes in eating patterns, social withdrawal, and/or anger.
A study on trends in depression among adolescents and young adults showed a 37 percent increase in adolescent reports of major depressive episodes between 2005 and 2014. Given the rise in adolescent depression, it’s important for parents, caregivers, and educators to understand the symptoms of adolescent depression and how to help.
The defining feature of a major depressive episode is a period of at least two weeks during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest in nearly all activities. In adolescents, the mood may be irritable. The two-week period represents a change in functioning for the teen.
In addition to experiencing depressed or irritable mood or loss of interest or pleasure, four other symptoms must be present:
- Anger or hostility
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Poor school performance
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Tearfulness or frequent crying
- Unexplained aches or pains
- Thoughts of death or suicide (with or without a plan)
Suicide warning signs
The possibility of suicide exists at all times during a major depressive episode.
The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that among students in grades 9-12 in the United States, 17 percent seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months, 13.6 percent made a plan about how they would commit suicide, 8 percent attempted suicide one or more times, and 2.7 percent made an attempt that resulted in poisoning, overdose, or an injury that required medical attention. Current data was collected in 2013.
Watch for the following signs of suicidal ideation among teens:
- Talking about committing suicide
- Writing poems or stories about suicide
- Giving away prized possessions
- Engaging in reckless behavior
- Romanticizing death
- Saying goodbye to friends and family members (in person, in notes, or on social media)
- Cryptic social media updates that reference death or the end
If you suspect that your teen (or your friend) is suicidal, take action right away. Call 1-800-273-TALK for 24-hour suicide prevention and help through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Treatment of depression
A complete physical to rule out other medical conditions is always a good first step in you suspect that your teen is struggling with depression.
- Psychotherapy: Talk therapy and/or cognitive behavioral therapy are often good initial treatments for mild to moderate cases of depression.
- Group therapy: Therapy groups can be effective for teens. Through group work, teens connect with other teens that share and understand their struggles and create support networks beyond their immediate families and close friends.
- Medication management: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) are antidepressant medications that can be beneficial to adolescents diagnosed with major depressive disorder. An adolescent being treated for major depressive disorder should be carefully evaluated by a physician to determine whether or not medication is necessary. Antidepressant medication does come with risks. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about SSRI medications for children and adolescent due to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Provide support at home
Depression is a serious condition that requires treatment. Do not take a wait and watch approach if you suspect depression–early intervention is best. In addition to professional treatment, there are some things you can do at home to help your teen.
- Focus on listening: You can’t fix this for your teen, and lectures won’t make depression go away, but active and empathic listening establishes rapport and provides emotional support.
- Make 1:1 time a priority: The simple of act of making time to talk each day helps your teen reconnect and seek help instead of internalizing feelings.
- Confront social isolation: Lack of motivation might make it difficult for your teen to connect with peers during this time. Encourage your teen to reach out to close friends and engage in activities of interest with other teens.
- Prioritize exercise: Regular exercise plays a vital role in improving mental health. Aim for one hour of exercise a day. Offer to try new exercise classes with your teen to make it fun.
- Improve nutrition: A healthy, balanced diet helps combat fatigue and feed the brain.
- Talk about sleep: Insufficient sleep exacerbates symptoms of depression. Teens need 9-10 hours of sleep every night.
It’s important for parents to be open and honest with teens with everything from seeking a diagnosis to making healthy changes at home to seeking professional treatment. Involving your teen in the diagnosis and treatment process helps your teen take control of his or her mental health and learn to prevent or cope with potential relapses
Written by Katie Hurley, LCSW