Teenagers experience depression in a manner very similar to adults, but they may experience their emotions more intensely and with greater volatility. Feeling down about a relationship issue or an upcoming exam is normal. Feeling down for months at a time for no particular reason, however, may be a sign of undiagnosed depression.
Teen depression is a serious issue, but can be helped when you know the symptoms. Though the term “depression” can describe a normal human emotion, it also can refer to a mental disorder. Depressive illness in teenagers is defined when the feelings of depression persist and interfere with the teen’s ability to function.
Depression is fairly common in teens and younger children. About 5 percent of children and adolescents in the general population suffer from depression at any given point in time. Teens under stress, who experience loss, or who have attentional, learning, conduct or anxiety disorders are at a higher risk for depression. Teenage girls are at especially high risk, as are minority youth.
Depressed youth often have problems at home. In many cases, the parents are depressed, as depression tends to run in families. Over the past 50 years, depression has become more common and is now recognized at increasingly younger ages. As the rate of depression rises, so does the teen suicide rate.
It is important to remember that the behavior of depressed children and teenagers may differ from the behavior of depressed adults. The characteristics vary, with most children and teens having additional psychiatric disorders, such as behavior disorders or substance abuse problems.
Teenage Depression Symptoms
The following are some of the most common symptoms of teenage depression. These symptoms don’t directly correspond to symptoms of major depression, but they’re similar. A teenager who meets some of the following will often qualify for a diagnosis of major depression.
Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying
Teens may show their pervasive sadness by wearing black clothes, writing poetry with morbid themes, or having a preoccupation with music that has nihilistic themes. They may cry for no apparent reason.
Teens may feel that life is not worth living or worth the effort to even maintain their appearance or hygiene. They may believe that a negative situation will never change and be pessimistic about their future.
Decreased interest in activities; or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
Teens may become apathetic and drop out of clubs, sports, and other activities they once enjoyed. Not much seems fun anymore to the depressed teen.
Persistent boredom; low energy
Lack of motivation and lowered energy level is reflected by missed classes or not going to school. A drop in grade averages can be equated with loss of concentration and slowed thinking.
Social isolation, poor communication
There is a lack of connection with friends and family. Teens may avoid family gatherings and events. Teens who used to spend a lot of time with friends may now spend most of their time alone and without interests. Teens may not share their feelings with others, believing that they are alone in the world and no one is listening to them or even cares about them.
Low self esteem and guilt
Teens may assume blame for negative events or circumstances. They may feel like a failure and have negative views about their competence and self-worth. They feel as if they are not “good enough.”
Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
Believing that they are unworthy, depressed teens become even more depressed with every supposed rejection or perceived lack of success.
Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
Depressed teens are often irritable, taking out most of their anger on their family. They may attack others by being critical, sarcastic, or abusive. They may feel they must reject their family before their family rejects them.
Difficulty with relationships
Teens may suddenly have no interest in maintaining friendships. They’ll stop calling and visiting their friends.
Frequent complaints of physical illnesses, such as headaches and stomachaches
Teens may complain about lightheadedness or dizziness, being nauseous, and back pain. Other common complaints include headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, and menstrual problems.
Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
Children and teens who cause trouble at home or at school may actually be depressed but not know it. Because the child may not always seem sad, parents and teachers may not realize that the behavior problem is a sign of depression.
Teens may have trouble concentrating on schoolwork, following a conversation, or even watching television.
A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
Sleep disturbance may show up as all-night television watching, difficulty in getting up for school, or sleeping during the day. Loss of appetite may become anorexia or bulimia. Eating too much may result in weight gain and obesity.
Talk of or efforts to run away from home
Running away is usually a cry for help. This may be the first time the parents realize that their child has a problem and needs help.
Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior
Teens who are depressed may say they want to be dead or may talk about suicide. Depressed children and teens are at increased risk for committing suicide. If a child or teen says, “I want to kill myself,” or “I’m going to commit suicide,” always take the statement seriously and seek evaluation from a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other mental health professional. People often feel uncomfortable talking about death. However, asking whether he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide can be helpful. Rather than “putting thoughts in the child’s head,” such a question will provide assurance that somebody cares and will give the young person the chance to talk about problems.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Depressed teens may abuse alcohol or other drugs as a way to feel better.
Teens who have difficulty talking about their feelings may show their emotional tension, physical discomfort, pain and low self-esteem with self-injurious behaviors, such as cutting.