Depression in Teenagers
Depression is a common mental heath issue characterized by changes in mood and behavior, effecting multiple environments, that persists for at least several weeks and causes significant difficulties in functioning. For teenagers this might mean academic or behavioral issues at school, difficulties interacting with peers, or withdrawing from family. Depression is more than simply being in a bad mood, feeling sad, or having a negative attitude and includes other significant psychological, biological, and behavioral changes.
Signs of Depression in Teenagers
Frequent mood swings
Loss of energy or fatigue
Thoughts of death, suicide or self harm
Academic difficulties (e..g, drop in grades, not doing school work)
Behavioral issues (e.g., getting into trouble at school, school refusal)
Changes in appetite
Treatment of Depression in Teenagers
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most researched and scientifically proven psychotherapy for treating depression in adolescents. CBT is a practical and easy to understand treatment approach that emphasizes the here-and-now and the development of effective coping skills and strategies. With teenagers, a combination of insight-oriented (e.g., changes in thinking, developing understanding) and behavioral interventions are typically utilized.
Certain medications (i.e., SSRIs) are commonly used to treat depression in teenagers and like psychotherapy have been proven to be effective in reducing depressive symptoms. While the use of medication to treat depression in adolescents has grown steadily over the past couple of decades there remains concern regarding the safety of some medication use in teenagers. For more information regarding the use of medications in treating depression in children and adolescents click here to visit the NIMH website on the matter.
Psychotherapy (i.e., talk or behavioral therapy) is an effective treatment for depression in teenagers. It is considered a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression. For more severe cases of depression a combination of medication and psychotherapy is typically recommended.
Family therapy is also commonly recommended for teenagers who are experiencing depression. Family therapy aims to help parents and caregivers learn how to more effectively provide support and create a less stressful environment for their children. Family therapy can often increase the effectiveness of individual therapy with teens.
What can you do as a parent?
Teenagers are complicated. They get moody and shift between emotions quickly and often without warning. It’s part of their biological makeup and development. As hormones are running laps around their bodies, their emotions can cause some hurdles along the way.
Below are some things you can do to help your teen when they are feeling depressed:
- Talk to them about it. It seems simple, right? It is important to talk with them about how they are feeling. They may not open up to you, but being available and trying, lets them know you are there to talk about whatever is going on in their lives, not just their current feelings or situations. Make sure when you offer to talk, you mean it and provide undivided opportunities to share.
- Empathize with them. If you have never experienced depression yourself, it may be difficult to understand what is going on and the impact on their lives. Depression is not about privileges or the latest fashion. Depression is related to how they see themselves in the world. Work on understanding their feelings and it will help you understand them better.
- Don’t try to fix their problems. A common mistake parents make is trying to fix whatever issues or problems their teen is having. Teens are at a stage in their development where they need to learn the necessary skills for problem solving. Giving them answers only invalidates their feelings and appears to trivialize their issues. It’s like saying “This is no big deal, you should be able to fix this easily…so why haven’t you done it already?”
- Give them resources. There are some really great tools out there. From apps to help you manage your feelings, to online blogs, to books they can read. Provide them with options to help them figure things out in ways that make sense to them. Ask them if they want to attend a self help group for teens. Encourage them to use resources their school might have to offer.
- Monitor their symptoms. There are specific symptoms you can keep an eye out for with teens. Look at sleep patterns, eating patterns, feelings of guilt, loss of interest in things they normally are interested in, energy levels, difficulty concentrating, feeling more irritated/agitated, statements from them directly of depression and any suicidal thoughts or attempts. If teens have suicidal thoughts, take it seriously. It will be too late to help them, if they are successful in an attempt.
- Get a physical from a doctor. It is important to rule out any physical causes for depression. Low vitamin levels or anemia can cause similar symptoms. Don’t jump to the conclusion they need medication for their symptoms. Low levels of Vitamin D in the winter time (due to less sunshine) can cause the “blues”.
- Respect their requests, but watch for warning signs. When teens feel depressed, it is common for them to want to stay in bed and isolate. It is important to respect their request to do this. However, if you notice these symptoms getting worse over the week, check in with them and try to get them to go out with the family. It is important for your teen to attend school on a regular basis. If they are too depressed to feel like going, it will be that much more difficult to go back adding the stress of makeup work.
- Educate yourself. Read up on recent articles about depression in teenagers. The more information & tools you have, the better.
- Love them no matter what. Remember your teen does not want to feel depressed. They are probably not doing it for attention. They need to know that you love them and that you are there for them. Keep the lines of communication open and love them just the way they are, depressed or not.
- Have them meet with a therapist that specializes in teenage depression. Sometimes enlisting the help of a profession will provide you with the appropriate level of support you need. The therapist can meet with the teen individually, while also setting up opportunities to meet with your family to help everyone understand depression and how to help.