Warning Signs of Teen Depression
It can be easy to recognize depression symptoms in adults, after the turbulent adolescent years have passed. The real challenge in mental health is identifying signs of depression in teens, whose consistent moodiness may be the product of situational mood swings that are a normal part of growing up. The challenge lies in identifying the difference between teen moodiness and signs of real depression. This is important because the teenage years are critical to long-term development of confidence and self-esteem, providing foundations for a successful life in work, home and family.
More than being moody
Separating normal teen moodiness from more serious signs of chronic depression is vital to the long-term mental health of any person. Depression can affect every aspect of a person’s life and with specifically adverse effects on school performance, relationships, family dynamics and general enthusiasm for life.
Understanding teen depression is sometimes hard for parents or teachers who have not experienced acute sensations of hopelessness or disinterest in normal activities.
With teenagers, motivation can be an inherent challenge. Some adults therefore lose patience with their teens. But depression can affect even the most motivated, successful teens as well. Highly motivated teens may foster an obsessive focus on success as a compensatory response to depression. That level of devotion can generate its own set of problems, including exercise addiction or eating disorders.
There are no hard and fast rules about understanding and treating depression. That means the key to helping a teen deal with how their brain works is to enter the discussion with patience and understanding. It’s hard in many ways to be a teenager, but it’s even harder with depression in the mix.
Separating mood from depression
The key to understanding depression is to recognize signs that a teen is struggling. Then the goal is to help them learn how to manage their emotions, especially if their response goes beyond occasional moodiness. True depression weighs on the mind as a deep and constant emotional pain, making it hard to enjoy even fun activities.
Look for these signs in teens:
1. Ambivalence beyond “whatever.” We all know teens that take the “whatever” attitude when they’re not motivated or offended by something in their lives. But if a teenager you know is chronically unmotivated and seems to lose interest even in the things they formerly liked to do, that can be an indicator of depression.
2. Withdrawal. When a teen is in emotional pain from depression, they are often not in control of their innermost feelings. Their natural reaction at times is to withdraw to avoid further pain and possible confrontation with others.
3. Upset biorhythms. If emotional pain from depression causes a teen to sleep all the time or not sleep at all, depression may be at work. It also manifests itself in profound changes in eating habits. One notable sign of depression is that a teen exhibits irritation in being reminded about these changing habits. That’s an emotional defense against being “found out” in their struggle with depression.
4. Quick-trigger emotional response. Sudden crying fits or frequent breakdowns may also be signs of depression. The pressures of fighting depression every day become too much for some young people to sustain. Their emotional outbursts are a cry for help.
5. Loss of energy and concentration. Depression is like a drain on the entire system. It sucks the life out of anyone affected by it. Fatigue or listlessness and inability to focus are common signs of depression.
6. Anger, guilt and aggression. Depression can turn even the nicest child into a sad or angry person. They may seem bitter at any level of criticism or lash out at seemingly irrational times. They may also exhibit signs of guilt or refuse to be helped in simple day-to-day activities. Depression can also produce feelings of worthlessness and aggression as a teen wrestles with their conscience. A depressed teen may also exhibit risky behaviors such as drinking, drug use or other forms of self-medication in an attempt to cope with their emotional pain.
7. Threats of suicide or self-harm. So much of adolescence is about getting attention, and teens that are depressed are known to threaten or actually act on their thoughts of suicide. Teens should be listened to carefully even when they make joking threats about wanting to kill themselves. The sad truth is that many teens seem to see real drama in the notion of dying. That’s why it is so important to take any verbalized threat or jokes seriously.
The most important thing for a teen with possible signs of depression is having a channel to express their emotions. These channels might be family, a counselor or trusted friends who can help them to an ongoing dialogue about their emotions. Not many people like to admit they are depressed. It seems like weakness to many people, but it is not. Offering support is a great starting point and being patient as the teen considers their options is important. Be sure to acknowledge their feelings and not dismiss them as something trivial. Emotional pain and depression are complex and can be difficult to diagnose and treat. That is why open, supportive channels of communication are vital to helping young people in emotional pain.
First next steps
Once you have acknowledged their emotional pain, teenagers are sometimes ready to consider short-term and even long-term solutions. These might include supported choices in social activities, getting more physical exercise, or counseling.
Involving everyone in your family or the nearest peer group can be critical to helping a teen cope with emotional pain and depression. It may take time to help them, but that is time well invested for the present and the future.
- Mayo Clinic Staff (2012, November 7). Teen depression: Symptoms - MayoClinic.com. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/teen-depression/DS01188/DSECTION=symptoms
- Teen Depression: A Guide for Parents—Learn the Signs and How You Can Help Your Teen. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_teen.htm
- Lyness, D. (2011, November). Depression. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/depression.html
Erica L. Fener, Ph.D., is Vice President, Business Development Strategy and Analysis at Progressus Therapy, a leading provider of school-based therapist positions and early intervention services.