Symptoms Of Depression To Look Out For In Teenagers

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 13, 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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Depression is a mental health disorder that may be experienced at almost any stage of life, but the mental health challenges during the teenage years are critical if not the most crucial. While there are common symptoms between adults and teenagers with this mental illness, the natural fluctuations of mood and behavior during adolescence can make it harder to identify in young people. Learning more about how depression can manifest in teenagers can equip you to take the appropriate measures if you ever notice concerning symptoms in your adolescent child.

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Believe your teen may be experiencing depression?

What is depression?

Depression, or major depressive disorder (MDD), is a mental illness that affects one in seven people between the ages of 10 and 19 globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

It’s a serious condition because it has the potential to impact almost every aspect of an individual’s life, from daily functioning to relationships to eating and sleeping patterns.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guidebook for diagnosing mental health conditions, categorizes MDD as a depressive disorder. It’s characterized by a persistently depressed mood, unexplained physical symptoms, extreme sensitivity to rejections or failures, and a waning interest in activities that were once enjoyable. Untreated depression can have serious consequences, such as a decline in school performance, substance abuse, or even suicide attempts.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

When a person experiences multiple MDD symptoms that last for more than two weeks, a mental health professional with experience in child and adolescent psychiatry may diagnose them with the disorder. Mental health professionals are knowledgeable enough on how to treat depression in teenagers; they can recommend a treatment plan that's tailored to the individual. Treatment plans may include antidepressant medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. It’s important to note that depression is a serious condition that’s unlikely to resolve on its own without treatment.

Symptoms of depression in teenagers

People go through many changes in almost every area of life during their adolescent years. As such, they may exhibit symptoms from the list below but not have a mental health disorder such as depression; they may simply be experiencing the tumult that can come with growing up. So how do you know how to identify the signs of depression in teens? First, doing what you can to keep the lines of communication open with them can help. If you’ve shown them that you can be a nonjudgmental listener, they’re more likely to come to you if they feel they have a mental health problem. Next, pay special attention to whether these symptoms seem to be interfering with your child’s daily functioning. If their school performance is slipping, their chores or personal hygiene no longer get taken care of, and they no longer seem motivated to hang out with friends or do things they love, these may be cause for concern.

It’s also important to understand the risk factors associated with depression in teens, such as a history of physical or sexual abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, and family who have other mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder.

Note that a mental health professional typically requires that multiple teen depression signs and symptoms be present for more than two weeks to qualify as MDD. If you’re unsure, seeking the advice of a licensed professional is usually a wise next step—especially since symptoms of adolescent depression may overlap with those of other mental health disorders, such as bipolar or personality disorder. Remember, only a trained mental health professional can offer an accurate diagnosis. In general, however, these are the most common symptoms of depression in teenagers:

  • Feeling sad and hopeless
  • Frequent crying
  • Intensely negative thinking
  • Irritability
  • Drug abuse
  • Being overly critical of themselves
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Significant fluctuations in sleep or eating habits
  • No longer showing interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Withdrawing or self-isolating

Symptoms that may require immediate action

While the major depression symptoms listed above can be alarming for any parent or guardian, certain symptoms may be a more significant cause for concern and require them to take action right away. For example, if you’ve discovered that your teenager has begun to abuse alcohol, self-harm, be preoccupied with death, express suicidal thoughts, or engage in suicidal attempts, it’s usually crucial to get them immediate support from a mental health professional. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by dialing 988 and is available 24/7. Connecting your child with a mental health professional who specializes in adolescents is typically the immediate next course of action. Signs of depression in teenagers might be difficult to manage, but they must be prioritized.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Treatment for depression in teenagers

The disturbing symptoms of teen depression explained the need that this mental health problem needs to be treated. As with many other mental health issues, the treatment for depression in teens often involves psychotherapy—sometimes in combination with medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of psychotherapy for those experiencing adolescent depression or other affective disorders such as bipolar disorder. It’s based on the idea that thoughts cause feelings and behaviors, so the goal of practicing it is to help the individual recognize and shift flawed or otherwise unhelpful thought patterns. A trained mental health professional can guide your teenager through this process over time, in addition to giving them a safe space to explore difficult emotions and helping them identify strategies for managing their symptoms.

It’s important to note that teenagers often fare better during mental health treatment when their needs and opinions are taken into account in the process. One study found that teenagers are more likely to accept treatment—and therefore benefit from it—when their provider makes an effort to establish rapport, learn information about their disorder, and include them in the decision-making process related to their mental health care. Both the teenager and their parents or guardians should be comfortable with the treatment plan, such as the teenage rehabilitation program that the provider lays out for them. If any party has a concern about some part of it, they should feel free to disseminate it.

Tips that can help increase treatment effectiveness

There are a variety of other lifestyle changes that may help your teenager better manage their symptoms and allow their treatment to be more effective. If your teen has been diagnosed with depression, supporting them in developing healthy habits like the following can be helpful. If your teen is not currently experiencing any symptoms of a mental illness, encouraging them to prioritize the following can still help them remain in good mental health.

  • Get regular exercise. Getting enough physical activity can offer both teens and adults a host of physical and mental health benefits. It’s well-known to be a mood-booster, especially when done outside in the sun. Additionally, some studies even suggest that exercise promotes nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which may help relieve or reduce symptoms of depression.
  • Lean on loved ones. Studies show that having a strong social support system is associated with a lower risk of both physical and mental health problems, from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression.
  • Do it together. Family therapy can also be beneficial in helping depressed teenagers work through their struggles. It may allow them to talk openly about difficult topics and focus on developing better coping skills.
  • Get enough sleep. Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night to fuel the growth and change their bodies and minds are going through. Enough rest can be helpful in seeing things with a more balanced perspective and having more control over one’s emotions.
  • Eat well. Research also shows that eating a balanced, nutritious diet can help reduce symptoms of depression and other health problems. According to the experts, it should include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and should limit processed foods for the best results.
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Believe your teen may be experiencing depression?

How therapy can make a difference

As mentioned above, psychotherapy will typically be part of your teenager’s treatment plan if they’re diagnosed with depression. In-person therapy is the traditional option. If your teen prefers this treatment method, you can look for a provider in your local area. If they’d feel more comfortable with a virtual option, you might consider an online therapy platform like TeenCounseling. You might ask "How do I know if my teenager needs counseling?"

With your consent, it can match your child with a provider they can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat. Since research shows that in-person and online therapy can offer similar mental health benefits, your teenager can choose the format that feels right for them. Note, however, that for severe cases, such as a teenager having thoughts of suicide or engaging in substance abuse, virtual therapy may not be a recommended option.

Takeaway

Teen depression is a serious mental illness that can impact virtually every aspect of a person’s life. If you start to notice signs of clinical depression in your teenager, taking action to get them the treatment they may need is usually an important next step. Getting professional support may even decrease the risk of suicidal thoughts or a suicide attempt among teenagers. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers a variety of resources for families and individuals to learn more about teen depression, as well as information on how to find treatment for depression and other mental health conditions. With the right help, teens can start to feel better and gain back control of their lives. Don’t be afraid to reach out and get the support you need.

Learn to cope with the challenges of adolescence
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