Recognizing And Navigating Teen Depression

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Teen depression can be a severe mental health disorder that may cause persistent feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in activities. Symptoms of depression can affect how a teenager thinks, feels, and acts, potentially leading to serious emotional, functional, and physical problems. It can be important to ensure that your teen receives help and support from a medical provider and/or licensed mental health professional if you believe they may be experiencing it. Other ways you may support your teenager could be by encouraging a healthy lifestyle, supporting their interests, concentrating on the positives, teaching them healthy coping skills, and maintaining open communication. If you find that you don’t know the best ways to guide your teenager through this tough time, you may benefit from online therapy.

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Depression in teenagers

It can be understandable why teens often experience dramatic mood swings when you consider that fluctuating hormones are typically added to the numerous other changes that generally take place during a teen’s life during the teenage years. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in five children usually experiences depression, and about 20% of these young people receive the help they need. Often, therapy can be very beneficial for teens in helping them work through this and other mental health concerns. 

If you’ve noticed that your teenager has been deeply sad for longer than two weeks and they exhibit additional signs of depression, it may be time to seek medical treatment.

Signs of teenage depression

If you believe your child is at risk of depression or is experiencing changes in mood or social behavior, there are some signs of the disorder to be aware of. Initial symptoms of this could include:

  • A shift in the teen's attitude and conduct
  • Considerable discomfort and issues at school, at home, or in social activities
  • Excessive irritability
  • Listlessness or disinterest in activities they used to enjoy

The severity of teen depression symptoms can vary greatly. This symptoms in adolescents can cause children to sleep excessively, modify their dietary habits, and even engage in illegal behaviors like drinking alcohol or stealing.

Even though your teenager may not display every indication of this mental health disorder, here are some more signs of teen depression as outlined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Emotional changes

You may wish to be aware of any emotional shifts, such as:

  • Sadness and extreme sensitivity, which may involve uncontrollable sobbing episodes for no apparent reason
  • Frustration or rage in response to minor issues
  • Angry mood at inappropriate times
  • Loss of enjoyment or interest in routine activities
  • Loss of interest in family and friends, or frequent disagreements with them
  • Low self-confidence (low self-esteem)
  • Feelings of inadequacy or guilt

Behavioral changes

You may also want to keep an eye out for any changes in behavior, such as:

  • Tiredness and low energy levels
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Appetite changes: reduced appetite and weight reduction, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • Pacing, handwringing, or an unwillingness to sit still
  • Slower-than-usual thoughts, speech, or physical motions
  • Frequent complaints of health problems like inexplicable bodily pains and headaches, including visits to the school nurse
  • Substance abuse such as using drugs or alcohol
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Diagnosis and risk factors

There may not be any physical medical tests that can accurately identify teen depression at this time. Interviews and psychological testing with a teenager’s family, teachers, and peers are frequently used by health care experts alongside the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to evaluate whether a teen has it.

Based on the results of these interviews, the degree of teen depression may be determined. The details gathered from the interviews may also be used to provide treatment suggestions.

Common patterns generally indicate that the following may be probable risk factors that could trigger teen depression. 

  • Obesity, peer difficulties, long-term bullying, or academic challenges that can have a detrimental influence on self-esteem
  • Being a survivor or witness of violent acts, such as physical or sexual abuse*
  • Other mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorders, anorexia, or bulimia
  • Having personality qualities such as low self-esteem feelings, being too reliant, being self-critical, or being negative
  • Alcohol, nicotine, or other substance abuse
  • Being a part of the LGBTQ+ community in a hostile atmosphere
  • Having a learning impairment or ADD/ADHD 
  • Spending time with other kids that encourage illegal behavior

Can depression run in families?

A family history of clinical depression or other mental health conditions can be one of the top risk factors for adolescents. Depression can run in families, and teenagers with a family history of it may be more likely to experience teen depression. Your teenager's risk may also be increased by family history and difficulties with family or others, such as:

  • Having a family member, parent, grandmother, or another blood family who is depressed, lives with bipolar disorder or other mental disorders, or experiences disordered use of alcohol
  • Having a dysfunctional family or experiencing family strife
  • Having just gone through a challenging life event, such as parental divorce, parental military duty, or a loved one's death

Potential complications

Depression that goes untreated can lead to emotional, behavioral, and physical issues that influence other aspects of your teen's life. Teen depression, especially when left untreated, can lead to a variety of complications and mental health consequences, such as:

  • Disordered use of alcohol and drugs
  • Academic issues
  • Relationship problems and family disputes
  • Participation in the juvenile justice system
  • Suicidal thoughts*

A health care provider specializing in adolescent psychiatry may also check for symptoms of co-existing psychiatric disorders, like anxiety disorders or substance use, and test for more complex disorders that may involve depression, like bipolar disorder or psychosis. A specialist in adolescent psychiatry may also conduct a physical exam to see if any physical health problem could be contributing to your teenager’s symptoms.

*If you have been experiencing any suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help from a mental health professional immediately. Don’t delay reaching out for help if suicidal thoughts are present. You can call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Treatment for adolescents

Child and adolescent depression can be treated with several approaches, including talk therapy. If a teen's symptoms are caused by familial strife, family counseling may be beneficial. The American Psychiatric Association also recently reported that education on mental health and well-being can be helpful, too.

Any school or peer difficulties may require assistance from the teen's family or instructors. Your child's mental healthcare professional can establish the appropriate treatment plan for them. On rare occasions, teenagers with severe depression or major depressive disorder may need to be hospitalized at a mental facility (or rehabilitation facility if they abuse alcohol or drugs), but seeing a therapist or licensed mental health professional regularly may help. A therapist with experience in teen depression may use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based approach often used to treat depression.

Improving adolescent mental health

There may not be a specific technique to keep teen depression at bay. Mental health can be complicated and often requires individualized care. Just like a physical affliction, mental health disorders may require attention and care without being a major crisis.

If your child develops depression, it does not necessarily mean they did not have a perfectly loving and supportive family environment. Many factors contribute to mental health challenges.

The following techniques can be important guidelines for supporting your teen, whether they are experiencing symptoms of depression or not.

  • Support your child's interests
  • Be a role model for healthy living
  • Insist on getting enough sleep regularly
  • Promote physical activity
  • Concentrate on the positive aspects of your day
  • Teach your child to manage stress
  • Encourage them to believe in themselves
  • Give them a strong sense of self-control
  • Keep lines of communication open
  • Keep an eye on how they're working
  • Encourage them to talk to a school counselor or any other mental health professional if in need
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Online therapy

Supporting your teenager with depression may be challenging, and you may find that you begin to experience stress or even anxiety symptoms when handling this potentially complex situation. Please know that this can be normal and that you may benefit from professional support of your own. Suppose traditional talk therapy is not available to you. In that case, online therapy can be a great alternative that allows you to connect with a licensed mental health professional from the comfort of your home at a time that fits your schedule.

According to this study, online therapy can be extremely effective in treating the effects of stress and anxiety, among many other mental health concerns. If you feel you would benefit from speaking with a licensed mental health professional, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Takeaway

Teen depression can involve persistent sadness, a loss of interest in activities, irritability, low self-esteem, a change in performance at school, and a variety of other emotional and behavioral changes. If you think your child may be living with depression, please do not hesitate to get them professional care. You may also support your teenager by teaching them healthy coping strategies, maintaining open lines of communication, supporting their interests, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle. If you’re finding it challenging to help your teen with the depression they’re experiencing, you may find online therapy to be a helpful tool.
With online therapy, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has experience helping the parents of teenagers or young adults living with depression. Take the first step toward getting support from a licensed therapist and reach out to BetterHelp today

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