Adolescent Depression Rates Are Increasing. What Can Be Done About It?
There are plenty of statistics to back up the assertion that depression in teens is increasing.
A report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes that car accidents and motor vehicle fatalities are considered the number one cause of death for teenagers, with suicide as the second-leading cause of death among people ages 15–24 in the US. It’s evident that action is necessary to better support young people and their mental health challenges during their teenage years.
Why are adolescent depression rates increasing?
There are various theories about why so many young people today are dealing with depression and other mental disorders. First, although it also offers some benefits, social media may be contributing to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns for young people. The constant pressure to put only the best parts of your life on display and to compare yourself to others can be detrimental, especially to young people. Increasing instances of cyberbullying may also play a role in the development of teen depression.
Plus, adolescence can be a difficult time in general. During the average teen’s life, many things are changing, and you’re working to figure out who you are, what you value, and what you want for your life. Add stressful elements like the pandemic, climate change, and social injustices to the mix, and it’s no wonder young people are experiencing challenges with their mental health that could lead to substance use.
Symptoms of depression to watch out for in adolescents
Sometimes, it may be difficult to distinguish normal adolescent behaviors from those that may be cause for concern, like clinical depression symptoms. Regularly checking in with your child on how they’re doing can help you notice if they may be facing mental health challenges. You may also want to keep an eye out for the following warning signs of depression in teens or pre-teens.
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Low energy levels
- Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Struggling with feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, or guilt
- Constant boredom
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- A decrease in their typical school performance
- Changes in weight
- Irritability or extreme sensitivity
- Appearing sad or tearful
What can be done to reduce rates of adolescent depression?
What can parents, teachers, and other people who have adolescents in their lives do about the startling rates of depression among this age group? There are a variety of approaches that may help.
Support the cultivation of healthy self-esteem
There’s a robust body of research and systematic review articles that point to the importance of self-esteem for overall health and happiness. One study associates it with “success and well-being in life domains such as relationships, work, and health”. Another points out that low self-esteem often correlates with increased anxiety, major depression, and suicidal ideation. Encouraging young people to build their self-esteem, then, may support their mental health. Some ideas for how to do this include pointing out what they’re good at, providing them with positive reinforcement and praise, teaching them to set healthy boundaries, emphasizing the power of positive self-talk, and encouraging healthy habits like eating well and exercising.
Provide and encourage strong social ties
Research from 2022 supports past findings on the importance of social support for a person’s health and well-being. It states that “Individuals who say they have family and friends they can count on to help them in times of trouble are consistently more likely to be satisfied with their personal health, and research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions”. You and other family can and generally should provide social support to your child, students, or other adolescents in your life. Encouraging them to make friends by joining activities and putting themselves out there can be helpful. It’s also worth noting that one study found that online social connections can provide similar benefits for those who lack in-person social support.
Put a stop to bullying
Bullying among children and adolescents is a complex and widespread issue. Consistent bullying in particular can have massively detrimental effects on the mental health of young people, which is why putting a stop to it may be highly beneficial. According to the CDC, about 1 in 5 high school students report being bullied on school property in the last year, and about 1 in 6 report being bullied online. Keeping an open dialogue with the adolescents in your life can make it more likely that they’ll come to you if they’re experiencing this type of abuse so you can step in. It may also be helpful to teach all young people the power of words, the importance of respecting each other, the beauty of diversity, and the potentially grave consequences of treating each other poorly.
If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.
If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.
Increase mental health education
It can also be helpful to teach adolescents about mental health and depression specifically, including what it is and how to spot untreated depression in themselves and others. You might emphasize to them that everyone faces challenges with their mental health from time to time, that support is available, and that there’s no reason to be embarrassed about reaching out to mental health care providers. De-stigmatizing mental health conditions and getting treatment for them, whether that be counseling, family therapy, or antidepressant medications, is likely an important step on the road to decreasing rates of adolescent depression. Never start or stop any depression medicines or other forms of medication unless under the guidance of a licensed medical professional.
Give kids permission to go to mental health support
If your adolescent child seems to be exhibiting symptoms of depression, seeking professional help for them is usually a recommended next step. Learning how to deal with teenage girls and boys' mental health is important. A primary care physician or therapist can help them identify strategies for managing their symptoms and improving their coping mechanisms to improve their mental health overall. However, even if your child is not exhibiting signs of a mental health condition like depression or bipolar disorder, it can be helpful to offer them the option of seeking mental health support. A mental health provider can offer them a safe, nonjudgmental space in which they can talk and work through any difficult feelings or stressful life events with professional encouragement and guidance.
If you're interested in seeking mental health care for your pre-teen or teen and are wondering how to treat depression in teenagers, resources are available. Research suggests that in-person and online therapy offer similar benefits, so you can pursue treatment for your child in whatever format works best for them. One study found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a common treatment for a variety of mental health conditions, may actually be more effective in mitigating the symptoms of depression when delivered virtually, and the study notes that it’s typically more cost-effective as well.
If you’re interested in virtual therapy for your child, an online therapy platform like TeenCounseling can match them with a therapist who they can speak with via phone, video call, and/or online chat. If you’re interested in seeking mental health support for yourself as you navigate the challenges of parenting, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp offers the same services for adults.
What causes depression in adolescents?
Depression triggers vary between people, and researchers have yet to determine one definitive cause. Instead, they believe a combination of factors likely triggers depression in adolescents. Some of these risk factors include:
- Heredity/Biological Factors
- Cognitive Liability
- Sociodemographic Factors
- Poor Peer Relationships And Social Factors
- Poor Relationships With Family Members
- Academic Stressors
- Medical Illness
Why do adolescents become depressed?
In addition to the above causes, adolescents have unique contributors associated with their developmental stage. They may become depressed due to problems at school, such as peer pressure or academic troubles. Some teens have problems with low self-esteem due to issues around body image or exposure to social media.
The problematic feelings associated with these challenges can also create other mental health conditions such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and affective disorders. Research indicates that adolescents with depression are also at greater risk of experiencing substance abuse.
Consulting with a mental health professional specializing in adolescent conditions can help identify the causes of depression and any co-occurring conditions.
What often triggers depression?
As with adolescence, depression in all ages is typically triggered by a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors.
What is the most common trigger of the first episode of major depression?
Research into what triggers the onset of major depressive disorder is ongoing. Still, experts note that it seems to be associated with painful life experiences, particularly those related to loss—for example, economic loss, unemployment, or the loss of a home or essential belongings. Interpersonal loss is a prevalent precursor as well, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or the sudden loss of a valued relationship.
Traumatic events like war, humanitarian crises, forced migration, natural disasters, rape, violent crime, and familial violence are significant precursors to major depression, as well.
Is depression more common in adolescents?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the highest prevalence of depression occurs in young adults aged 18-24 years (21.5%). In 2023, Mental Health America (MHA) reported that 16.39% of adolescents aged 12-17 years experienced at least one major depressive episode within the last year.
Which characteristic is commonly associated with adolescent depression?
A 2023 study published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health surveyed 549 adolescents aged 13-18 using two self-evaluation assessments. The researchers found that the group most used the words “tired” and “sad” to describe their state of mind. Interestingly, many in the group also reported using prosocial self-evaluation words like “caring” and “kind” to describe themselves.
What are the three factors that impact adolescent depression?
It is challenging to isolate three factors as the most common for impacting adolescent depression. For some adolescents, self-esteem and body image are the most impactful. For others, it may be school pressures or adverse home life circumstances. However, ongoing research indicates that a family history of depression, exposure to bullying, and a hostile family environment are the three factors most impacting adolescent depression.
How does depression affect adolescent brain development?
Depressive disorders change how neurotransmitters develop and function within the prefrontal cortex and how they link between different regions of the brain. These physiological changes within the brain can disrupt how an individual processes and balances emotions.
What is the best clue for determining a problem with depression in adolescence?
Anger, irritability, and sadness are the most common traits that manifest in adolescents with depression. You may also notice changes in eating and sleep patterns, social withdrawal, and trouble with schoolwork. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), if these symptoms persist for at least two weeks and occur more days than not, severe depression may be present.
If you suspect your teen has a depressive disorder, reach out to a mental health professional or their pediatrician for a referral for mental health services in your area. The National Institute of Mental Health also provides depression resources for parents and caregivers. Talk therapy can significantly help adolescents to understand the contributors to depression and develop practical coping skills.
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