Whether it’s the thrill of gaining independence or the stress of peer pressure, the life of a teenager is full of ups and downs.
As a teenager, it’s difficult to balance the highs and lows of school and your relationships with parents and friends. And if the lows become too overwhelming, you might feel sad, anxious, or overwhelmed. You might also start to lose interest in the things you once enjoyed and avoid seeing your friends.
When this continues for 2 or more weeks, it’s a sign that you could be experiencing depression. This is a serious condition with both physical and mental effects. It can affect every part of your life, including how much you eat and sleep.
Depression can feel very lonely, but it’s quite common in teenagers. According to the National Institute of Health (NIMH), an estimated 3.2 million adolescents in the United States have had at least one major depressive episode.
Depression is a highly treatable condition, but it’s difficult to treat on your own. It’s not something you can just “snap out of” by trying to be happier. Treatments like psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be very effective.
Some guidance and support can be invaluable and help you to feel less alone in this. So, if you think you’re experiencing depression, it can help to talk with a trusted adult about how you feel.
Depression can happen at any age, but the symptoms often start in your teenage years or in early adulthood. The symptoms of depression in teenagers aren’t the same as symptoms of depression in adults, but they’re similar.
From puberty onwards, your body and brain go through many changes. Shifting hormone levels have a direct impact on our mood, too.
These are natural changes, but they can lead to a whole lot of complicated emotions. It can be difficult to talk about or make sense of your thoughts and feelings, which can get overwhelming at times.
If you’re experiencing depression, the following symptoms might feel familiar to you. You don’t have to experience all of these symptoms, but depression usually involves a handful of them:
- feeling down or blue
- frequent sadness, tearfulness, or crying
- feeling hopeless, or like everything in your life is going wrong
- less interest or pleasure from your usual activities
- persistent boredom with a lack of motivation to get out of boredom
- low energy
- difficulty concentrating
- lower performance in school
- withdrawing from friends and family
- low self-esteem or feelings of guilt
- extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
- feeling more irritable, angry, or hostile
- difficulty with relationships
- difficulty communicating
- self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions
If you menstruate, you might notice that your moods change throughout the month because of hormonal changes. For example, it’s common to feel more anxious, low, and emotional shortly before your period starts. Many of these symptoms could be accounted for by menstruation, but they could also be part of depression.
As well as looking out for the symptoms above, caregivers who are worried about their teenager’s change in mood or behavior can look for the following warning signs:
- frequent complaints of physical illnesses, such as headaches or stomachaches
- a major change in eating or sleeping patterns
- frequent absences from school, or getting into trouble at school
- excessive alcohol or drug use
Below, we’ll talk about the symptoms of depression in a bit more detail.
Feeling down or blue
A depressed mood is characteristic of depression, and many people will recognize this as a main symptom. Depression often involves a very low mood.
The low mood is deeper than usual sadness. On top of feeling sad, many people also feel hopeless, worthless, guilty, or stuck, like they can’t get out of the mood no matter how hard they try.
Frequent sadness or crying
When you have depression, you might find yourself feeling a deep sadness more often than usual. Your emotions can feel difficult to handle, and you may have a hard time regulating them.
This might mean that you feel tearful sometimes, but you’re not quite sure why, or you cry more easily than usual. This might feel embarrassing at the time, but know that everybody feels down at times, and crying is a natural emotional response.
Sometimes, depression can rob you of your feelings of joy. It can dampen the knowledge that life can get better. This can make you feel hopeless, or like everything in your life is going wrong.
You might find that you no longer care about your appearance or hygiene, or feel like bad situations will never change, and you know that you used to feel more hopeful.
Less interest in your usual activities
One of the key symptoms of depression is losing interest or enjoyment from things that used to bring you joy.
You might find that you drop out of clubs, sports, or other activities because they don’t make you feel the same way anymore.
Persistent boredom and low energy
Feelings of boredom are common in depression, especially when you’ve lost interest in things you used to enjoy. This symptom includes a lack of interest in finding ways to counteract boredom.
Fatigue, or extreme tiredness and low energy, can also add to this feeling.
It might feel like you’ve got nothing to do and, even if you did, you wouldn’t have the energy to do it. You might also feel like you’re thinking slower than you did before.
Concentrating on schoolwork might be difficult, or you might have trouble following a conversation or even watching television. You find yourself getting distracted easily and your attention seems to wander without your realizing it.
Lower performance in school
You might notice your grades dropping. There are many possible reasons for this, including:
- difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork
- feeling distracted by turbulent emotions
- feeling like you don’t care about how you’re doing in school, or like you’re going to fail anyway, so you don’t want to try
Frequent absences from school can also lead to lower grades. Feelings of anger or irritability can contribute, too, and you might find that you’re getting in trouble at school more often.
You might feel guilty about these things, but go easy on yourself — it’s genuinely difficult to maintain your grades when you’re struggling with your emotions.
It’s common for depression to manifest as low self-esteem. This includes feeling like a failure, feeling “not good enough,” or taking on blame or guilt when things aren’t going well.
Struggling with your inner critic? Read about ways to fight back here.
Irritability or anger
You might get annoyed easily at anything — at your friends, your family, yourself, or the world. Anger is a more common symptom of depression in boys than girls, but it can affect all genders.
Withdrawing from friends and family
Avoiding family gatherings, turning down invitations, or withdrawing from friends and spending much of your time alone — these are all signs of depression.
Depression can make you feel alone, and like nobody understands what’s going on with you, which makes it difficult to communicate with others.
Often, depression has physical effects on your body. This might include:
- unexplained headaches
- dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- back pain
- menstrual problems
Changes in your eating or sleeping patterns
You might stay up watching TV all night, have difficulty in getting up for school, or sleep through the day. Your eating patterns might change, too. Unexplained weight loss or gain is a symptom of depression.
Sometimes, extreme changes in your eating habits is a sign of an eating disorder. If you suspect that you might have an eating disorder, help is available.
The National Eating Disorders Association offers some helpful tools and advice for seeking treatment.
Alcohol and drug use
Some people use alcohol or drugs as a way of coping with difficult emotions. This can turn into a substance use disorder, which can complicate things.
If you have depression and a substance use disorder, it’s important to receive treatment for both. Read about treatments for substance use disorders here.
Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
When it’s hard to talk about your feelings, you might express them by hurting your body. It might be to cope with feelings of anger, frustration, hopelessness, or numbness.
Some people have death ideation, which is feeling like you want to die or not be alive, but without thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Talking to a mental health professional can really help you to understand self-harm behaviors and find ways to counteract them.
It’s important to note that self-harm isn’t always associated with suicidal thoughts or actions.
Seek medical help immediately if you’re considering acting on suicidal thoughts. Remember that you’re not alone, and resources are available to you.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available right now:
If you think you, or a teenager you know, is struggling with depression, a doctor or mental health professional can diagnose and treat the condition.
It’s best to find someone who’s trained to work with teenagers. If you’re not sure how to find someone, ask a pediatrician or school for recommendations.
To diagnose depression, a doctor or therapist will talk with you about what you’re going through and how long you’ve had these symptoms. They might ask to talk to your parents, too, if you consent.
A doctor may also do a physical exam and request lab tests to confirm that the symptoms aren’t caused by another health condition.
Major depressive disorder is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5). To meet the criteria, you must have had symptoms for at least 2 weeks that got in the way of your daily life.
If you think you have depression, it can help to start by talking with an adult you trust. This could be your parent, a teacher, or the school counselor. It’s not always easy, but this is often the first step to feeling better.
If you’re concerned that your teen might be struggling with depression, try talking with them. They might not feel comfortable taking the first step.
If you think they might be having thoughts of suicide, it’s important to take this seriously. Having an open conversation about suicide won’t “put thoughts in their head” — it might just help them feel seen, understood, and supported.
Depression is a common mental health condition, and it’s highly treatable. Most people benefit from getting treatment, which might involve psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
If you don’t feel ready to speak to someone you know, there are plenty of resources to help you understand and cope with your symptoms:
- The Depression Resource Center from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry offer resources for teens and caregivers.
- The National Academy of Mental Illness (NAMI) offers information for family members and teenagers about dealing with mental health challenges.
- NAMI has also written a list of five things you can do to help your child with depression, which you can read here.
Remember that even if you feel really bad now, things can get better. Asking for help is the first step towards a happier, more fulfilling life.