If you think that you or a teenager you know might have depression, you’ve come to the right place.
Depression is more than just sadness. Depression is a group of mental health disorders associated with sad, empty, or irritable moods that can affect your ability to function.
During your teenage years, your body and brain are going through lots of changes. Shifts in your hormone levels can directly affect your mood, and big questions might start to arise about relationships and identity. It can all feel a bit overwhelming at times.
It’s normal to have emotional ups and downs, but if they last for 2 weeks or longer and seriously affect your daily life, this could be a sign of depression.
Read on to learn about how depression affects teenagers and what to do about it.
Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. It can happen at any age, but the symptoms often start in your teenage years or in early adulthood.
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 15.7% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 had experienced at least one major depressive episode.
And, according to a study in The Journal of Pediatrics, 3.2% of U.S. children and teens had diagnosed depression in 2016.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean that it’s any less serious. Depression can have significant and wide-reaching effects on your life, and treatment is the first step to feeling better.
Though many of the symptoms are similar, teenagers may experience depression differently than adults. Adults typically feel sadness, while teenagers more frequently feel severe irritability.
It’s also important to recognize that normal emotions and mood changes differ from depressive episodes. Identifying depression is the first step to treatment and management.
Symptoms of depressive episodes in teenagers often include:
- feeling sadness or tearful often
- feeling more irritable, angry, or hostile than usual
- feeling hopeless
- low self-esteem or feelings of guilt
- low energy
- losing interest or enjoyment in your usual activities
- persistent boredom
- withdrawing from family and friends
- trouble concentrating or making decisions
- lower grades or school performance
- trouble sleeping
- difficulty with relationships or communicating
- changes in appetite or weight
- frequent physical complaints, like headaches or stomachaches
- self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions
Teens living with depression may struggle to maintain healthy social and academic lives. Addressing and treating depression is important for improving current and future well-being.
Want to learn more? You can read about the symptoms of depression in teens here.
There’s rarely one single cause of depressive disorders. Research suggests that depression is caused by interactions between many factors:
- Genetics. Research looking into family histories of major depression suggests a genetic component, as is true of affective disorders, in general. Affective disorders include depression and bipolar disorder.
- Biology. Brain chemicals, like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, are involved in depression. Newer research suggests that nerve cell connections, growth, and functioning can also have a major effect.
Brain structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, all play a role in depression, too.
- Environment. A history of adverse childhood experiences or trauma in childhood or adolescence is strongly linked with depression. This might include physical or sexual abuse, death in the family, or traumatic events.
Many other risk factors for depression can increase a teenager’s likelihood for depressive episodes. These include:
- severe life stress
- other mental health disorders, like anxiety
- inequities, including those related to poverty, race, or gender
- experiences of loss or grief
- family conflict
- chronic illness
- significant life changes, like moving or parental divorce
The more risk factors adolescents encounter, the greater the potential impact on their mental health.
For teenagers, the pressures of society — coming from friends, family, entertainment, and media -— can increase the risk for mental health conditions.
Issues with body image, appearance, gender identity, and sexual identity are common in developing teens and can contribute to depression.
Young people, and especially girls, from migrant or impoverished communities are disproportionately affected by depression and other mental health conditions. This is true within communities of color, too.
The greater number of environmental risk factors these teens typically face make developing symptoms of depression more likely. These environmental factors include:
- acute stress
- inadequate nutrition
- lack of stimulation
Depression is also associated with high-risk behaviors in teens, such as:
- excess substance use
- sex without protection
- suicide attempts
Many factors can lead to depression, and they’re different for everyone. You can learn more about causes of and risk factors for depression here.
If you think that you or someone you know is struggling with depression, it’s important to take it seriously. Getting help can make a world of difference.
Talking with a doctor or mental health professional can help you understand what you’re going through and learn ways to cope with distressing thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, medication can help, too.
To diagnose depression, your doctor or therapist will talk with you about what you’re experiencing and how long you’ve had your symptoms for. If you allow them, they might also talk with your parents or caregivers.
A major depressive episode in children and teenagers is defined by a period of at least 2 weeks of a severely irritable or sad mood or loss of interest in most activities. There must also be at least four additional symptoms present to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
PDD, previously called dysthymia, is a more chronic but less severe form of depression. It’s characterized by a consistent irritable or depressed mood lasting at least 1 year, unlike in adults, which requires a period of 2 years for diagnosis.
All types of depressive disorders are treatable. Consulting a doctor or mental health professional is an important first step.
A proper diagnosis will help you get the most appropriate and beneficial treatment. It’s particularly important for teens experiencing depression to receive care, as treatment in these formative years of development can improve mental and physical health in the long-term.
Despite this importance, the NSDUH survey found that only around 43.3% of teens ages 12 to 17 who experienced a major depressive episode received treatment.
The treatment should be specific to you and your symptoms, so always speak with a mental health professional to determine the best path forward.
You should feel comfortable asking questions and expressing any doubts or concerns. It may take some trial and error with different forms of therapy or medication, so try not to be discouraged if you don’t see improvements right away.
Treatments for depression in teenagers and adults alike can include:
- Medication. Many antidepressants have been approved for usage by teenagers and have been shown to be
effective. These most commonly include fluoxetine (Prozac) and escitalopram (Lexapro).
- Psychotherapy. The American Psychiatric Association recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT-A) for teen depression. CBT focuses on reframing harmful thought patterns, and IPT-A helps teens recognize how relationships play a role in depression and improve social and communication skills.
- Self-help strategies. Though practicing self-care can be difficult during a depressive episode, getting exercise, following a healthy diet, trying mindfulness or meditation, and spending time with loved ones may help improve symptoms.
Though more research is necessary, some
As a parent, teacher, guardian, or friend of a teenager you believe may be experiencing depression, it’s important to be open and receptive to their feelings. In a nonjudgmental and empathetic way, ask them to express what they’re experiencing.
Listen carefully and try to respond with understanding, not lecturing. Though some teenagers may be dismissive or hesitant to discuss their feelings with you, showing that you care and can offer help is an important first step.
You can also talk with a doctor or therapist who knows about depression in teenagers.
Teens may be more receptive to seeking treatment if they’re involved in the decision-making, so be sure to listen to their input. If they do take medication or receive therapy, you can help them to make sure their treatment stays on track.
Maintaining a positive attitude and acknowledging achievements, however small or large, is important as the caregiver or friend of a teenager with depression.
Gently encouraging them to increase their social time with friends and family and supporting them in getting enough exercise and sleep can make a big difference in helping them to feel better.
If they make statements indicating suicidal thoughts or self-harm, take them seriously. Have open and honest conversations about these thoughts and behaviors, and seek the help and expertise of a mental health professional.
If you or a teen you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, speaking with a family member, close friend, therapist, or doctor may be a good first step.
When managing any mental health condition such as depression, patience is key.
Keep in mind that treatment takes time and effort. Small changes to self-care like doing yoga or meditation at home, meeting up with friends, writing in a journal, and keeping a regular sleep schedule may quickly help you feel better.
Even if you’re unable to see a psychiatrist or therapist, other resources may still be available to you. These may include school counselors, family members, or helplines.
Here are resources for help with depression or suicide:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- Teen Line: 800-852-8336
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 800-950-NAMI (6264)
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
For more information about depression in teenagers, check out these organizations and helpful resources:
- National Institute of Mental Health: Teen Depression
- Health Care Alliance for Response to Adolescent Depression (HEARD)
- Go Ask Alice!
- Teen Mental Health