Depression and teenagers

school boy gazing forward

During the teenage years, changes in the brain mean that adolescents can get quite emotional. These changes aren’t complete until their mid-twenties, and the last brain regions to develop are those responsible for planning, awareness of consequences and perspective. As a result, it’s normal for teenagers to be moody from time to time.

But if a low mood is significant and persistent, it may be a sign of depression. Depression in teenagers is relatively common – 1 in 4 young people will experience some form of depression, and it’s more common with females than males. Learn about the signs of teen depression to look out for and what you can do to help.

What is depression?

Everyone gets moody, down or angry at times – these are normal emotions, especially during the teenage years. When someone feels this way for two weeks or more, though, and it starts affecting their everyday life, they could be experiencing depression.

Depression is a mental health issue that shows up as predominant feelings of sadness, anger or despair. The good news is that depression is highly treatable. Despite this, only 1 in 5 young people with depression get help, usually relying on an adult close to them to spot the signs and support them.

What causes depression in teens?

There are many risk factors that can influence depression in young people, including:

  • biological – hormonal changes
  • genetic – a family history of depression
  • past and current experiences – such as domestic violence, stress, or bullying at home, school or online
  • personality traits and learned patterns of thinking – such as pessimism, self-doubt, low self-esteem, moodiness and being highly sensitive
  • traumatic or stressful events – such as physical or sexual abuse, a death or divorce in the family, or big changes in routine or lifestyle
  • a history of other mental illnesses – such as substance abuse, or anxiety or personality disorders.

How can I recognise the symptoms of depression in teens?

The symptoms of depression are different for everyone, but your teen might be expressing certain emotions more often, or may seem down, or may even be talking about feeling a certain way. Symptoms include:

  • feelings of worthlessness
  • extreme sadness or hopelessness that doesn't seem to lift
  • changes in emotions and more visible expression of them (e.g. anger, guilt or irritability), and you might notice these changes at a particular time of day – for example, your child can’t get up in the morning, as they are feeling very low
  • low energy levels and motivation
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

Changes in your teen’s normal behaviour might include:

  • withdrawing from friends and family
  • engaging in risk-taking behaviours, such as unprotected sex, or alcohol or drug abuse
  • changes in appetite
  • changes in sleep patterns, including difficulty sleeping, over-sleeping, or staying in bed most of the day
  • not performing as usual at school or extracurricular activities
  • trouble concentrating
  • a decreased interest in activities that were previously important to them.

What is the difference between adult and teenage depression?

While many of the signs of depression in teens are similar, there are some specific things to look out for in teens that differ from depression in adults. For example:

  • anger or irritability, which is often the predominant emotion in teenage depression, rather than the overwhelming sadness seen in adults
  • oversensitivity to criticism or rejection, due to the extreme feelings of worthlessness
  • selective withdrawal, rather than complete isolation – teens tend to withdraw from some people, such as parents and some social groups, but keep up at least some friendships
  • unexplained aches and pains.

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the signs of depression in teens from the mood changes that are a normal part of growing up. An obvious and troubling change in behaviour that lasts longer than two weeks may mean your teenager needs support.

How you can help

For most people, getting support early for depression can prevent loss of friendships and poor performance at school, which can impact on later recovery.

Each person is different, so what causes depression in teens may vary from person to person. Check out some practical steps and strategies to support your teenager with depression.

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