Recognizing Depression in Teens

Many myths surround teen depression. The teen years are tough, but most adolescents and young adults ride out the angst by balancing them with friendships, school, outside activities and hobbies. However, some teenagers face a host of pressures—from changes brought on by puberty to identity questions and social insecurity. The transition can also spark parental conflict as teens assert their independence. With all this drama, it can be difficult to differentiate between depression and normal teenage moodiness. Adding to the complication is the fact that teens with depression do not necessarily appear sad or always withdraw from others. In fact, symptoms of irritability, aggression and rage are more prominent among teens. To learn how to recognize depression in teens—and find out when it’s time to step in and get help—get professional help.

Depression Basics

Depression strikes teenagers far more often than most people think. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, one in five teenagers struggles with it at some point. Although depression is highly treatable, experts say just one in five depressed teens receives help. Unlike adults who have the ability to seek treatment on their own, teenagers usually rely on parents, teachers or other caregivers to recognize their suffering and to take action for them. Those who get treatment early on have a greater chance of preventing future episodes than people who avoid help.

Depression in teens often differs from depression in adults. Rather than sadness, irritability is often the predominant mood in depressed teens. A depressed teenager may be grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated or prone to angry outbursts. Physical symptoms may also be present: depressed teens frequently complain about headaches or stomachaches. They may also seem unduly sensitive to criticism, rejection and failure, particularly if they are overachievers. Lastly, while adults tend to isolate themselves when depressed, teenagers usually keep up at least some friendships. However, teens with depression may socialize less than before, pull away from their parents or start hanging out with different crowds.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic add that the following symptoms evince depression in teens:

  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Crying spells
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lethargy
  • Poor concentration

Additionally, the following rebellious and unhealthy behaviors in teenagers also indicate depression:

  • Academic problems – Depression can cause low energy and hinder concentration. At school, these problems may lead to poor attendance, a drop in grades or frustration with schoolwork in a formerly good student.
  • Running away – Many depressed teens run away from home or talk about running away, but such attempts are usually a cry for help
  • Drug and alcohol abuse – Teens may use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to “self-medicate” their depression
  • Low self-esteem – Depression can trigger and intensify feelings of ugliness, shame, failure and unworthiness
  • Internet addiction – Teens may go online to escape their problems, but excessive computer use only increases their isolation, which makes them more depressed
  • Reckless behavior – Depressed teens may engage in dangerous or high-risk behaviors, such as reckless driving, out-of-control drinking and unsafe sex
  • Violence – Some depressed teens, usually boys who are the victims of bullying, become violent

Time is the variable to monitor if you are unsure if an adolescent in your life is depressed or just “being a teenager.” Consider how long symptoms have been present, how severe they are and how differently your loved one behaves. Long-lasting changes in personality, mood or behavior are red flags of a deeper problem.

Suicide Watch

Teen depression is also associated with a number of mental health problems, eating disorders and self-injury, so suicide is highly possible for this demographic. While many depressed teens think about, speak of or make “attention-getting” attempts at suicide, an alarming number of teenagers succeed in suicide. Depressed teens who abuse alcohol or drugs have a higher risk of suicide, so watch out for the following warning signs in a depressed teen:

  • Talking or joking about committing suicide
  • Saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever” or “there is no way out”
  • Speaking positively about death or romanticizing dying (“If I died, people might love me more”)
  • Writing stories and poems about death, dying, or suicide
  • Engaging in reckless behavior
  • Having frequent accidents that result in injury
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family as if for the last time
  • Stashing weapons or pills

The National Alliance on Mental Illness urges parents, friends and caregivers to take all suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors seriously. If your teen claims nothing is wrong, but cannot explain what causes the depressed behavior, then trust your instincts. Remember that denial is a strong emotion, and teenagers may not believe that what they are experiencing is the result of depression, but trust your instincts. If you suspect your teenager is depressed, then consult with a medical professional quickly. Depression rarely improves spontaneously; rather, it often gets worse and leads to other problems if ignored. If you think your teen is in immediate danger of self-harm or attempting suicide, then make sure someone stays with him. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately, and, if you can do so safely, then take your teen to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Get Help for Depression

If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, then know that help is available. Admissions coordinators are available at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline to guide you and your family to wellness. Our counselors can help you understand your treatment options and find affordable solutions. Please call today to take the first step toward a better life.