Extensive research done in the fields of psychiatry and psychology have proven that adolescent depression, commonly referred to as teenage depression is anything but a myth. Teenage depression is a mental and emotional disorder which is no different medically from adult depression other than in the way symptoms manifest themselves due to the different developmental and social challenges teens face. Two decades ago it was almost unheard of for children to be diagnosed with depression, however now depression rates in children and adolescents are on a steep increase.
Adolescence can be a difficult time for any child as they face changes due to puberty, peer pressure and academic challenges that may leave them feeling unnecessarily inadequate. The causes of depression vary from social factors to biological factors such as chemical imbalances. However by recognizing the signs, parents, teachers and loved ones can help adolescents through what could be a dark period of their lives, even without knowing the exact cause.
Teenage depression vs. teenage bad moods
Identifying depression in adolescents may not be easy, because teenagers are quite often irritable, sulky, withdrawn and even negative. These characteristics and behaviours are seen as a normal part of growing up and should not be mistaken as a psychological disorder. A teen who is sad may not necessarily be a teen who is depressed. Children may occasionally be sad or feel low, because just as for adults their lives too will have ups and downs, good days and bad days. However, if his or her downheartedness lasts for more than a few weeks or seems to render him or her dysfunctional in terms of daily activities, studies or relationships, it could indicate clinical depression.
Depression is characterized by much more than a temporary change in mood; it is marked by a lack of enthusiasm and pleasure, low energy and a prolonged sense of hopelessness or helplessness that can last for weeks, months and even years at a time.
What are the symptoms you should look out for?
The symptom of depression most of us would be sensitive to and think to be the obvious would be sadness, but surprisingly it is not the symptom most teens with depression report. Interestingly, one of the main and overlooked signs in teens is chronic irritability. Other signs to look out for include inability to concentrate, lack of energy, sleep disturbances, a downward trend in school performance (academic and extracurricular), a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, considerable change in appetite or weight (has gained or lost a significant amount), change in personal hygiene, appears restless, agitated (wringing hands, pacing, can’t sit still) or has slowed down (staring in front for hours, walking slowly, takes a lot of time to think), withdraws from friends, and has beliefs or thoughts that life is not worth living and others would be better off without him or her.
Another symptom of depression that is not very obvious at first is complaints about physical ailments or what is called somatic symptoms of depression. Teens who are depressed might often complain about headaches, stomach aches or body pain which does not seem to have an apparent cause.
Causes of adolescent depression
The brains of children and adolescents are structurally diverse to the brains of adults. Teens with depression can also have hormone differences and different levels of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are key chemicals in the brain that have an affect how brain cells communicate with one another, and play an important role in regulating our mood and behaviour. In addition to the biological causes, teens may be depressed if they have trouble making friends or getting along with peers and family members, or if they experience dramatic mood swings. Pressure to perform well in academics or sports, or to be likable and popular may also have an impact on a teen’s mental wellbeing. Depression also goes hand in hand with other physical and mental health difficulties more often than we may think. Some teens may be depressed because of a chronic illness, such as diabetes, or chronic pain. A teen who may have a substance abuse problem or an eating disorder, as well as kids who are constantly disagreeable and defiant, or clash with authorities in school or the community, may also suffer from depression.
It is important to remember that while the triggers or causes of adolescent depression mentioned above may not appear as major events or problems to adults, adolescents perceive them in very different ways. In fact being sensitive to the differences in their perception can allow us to better help adolescents who suffer from depression.
How can you help a teen who suffers from depression?
If you see signs of depression in a teenager you know, or you suspect they are going through strong emotional distress, first encourage him or her to engage in dialogue. For parents or others working with boys this may prove to be more difficult, but may be a lifesaving effort. According to Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack, male teens are the victims of outdated rules that put them under pressure to remain silent and stoic at a large emotional cost. He suggests creating a safe-zone for teens to talk, in order to help them with their problems. This could happen while taking a ride in the car or while playing a sport or board game- any situation that you can talk casually while not simply facing each other across a table at a “family meeting”.
With both girls and boys it is best not to question them incessantly, but rather to let them know that you are there for them if they need to talk. If you want you can give them an opportunity to talk by using a statement like “You seemed to be a little sad lately”, or you can share something about yourself that shows them it is a safe place to be vulnerable.
If they are very difficult to engage in a conversation and seem to be severely withdrawn, you could speak to a doctor regarding a referral to a skilled mental health professional. When finding a psychologist or psychiatrist who works with children and adolescents, it would be better to involve your teen and settle on someone they are comfortable with too. This professional may gradually be able to help you understand the teen’s triggers and pattern of the problem. In addition to therapeutic intervention, if necessary they may also provide medication or refer you to another professional who could prescribe medication.
It is important for parents, teachers and even mental health professionals to keep in mind that no matter how moody, indifferent, irritated or rebellious a teen is with you, he or she still needs your support, guidance and love to make it through difficult times.