Depression and teenagers
It’s normal for teenagers to be moody from time to time. But if a low mood is persistent, it may be a sign of depression. Depression in teenagers is relatively common, with 1 in 16 young people aged 16-24 experiencing depression at any one time. Learn the facts about depression in teenagers, the signs to look out for, and what parents can do to help.
This can help if you:
- want to know the signs of depression and what may be causing it
- worry that your teenager might have depression
- • have noticed that your teenager is showing increased withdrawal, moodiness or irritability
- want to know what you can do to help.
What is depression?
While some degree of moodiness, anger and acting out is normal during the teenage years, depression is more serious. Depression is a mental health disorder that shows up as overwhelming sadness, anger or despair. To be classified as depression these feelings have to be prolonged over about two weeks or more, not just sad or moody for a couple of days. You know it is severe because it gets in the way of the person’s normal activity. The good news is that depression is highly treatable. Despite this, only 1 in 5 young people with depression gets help, usually relying on an adult close to them to spot the signs and support them.
Signs of depression in teenagers:
- feelings of worthlessness
- withdrawing from friends and family
- extreme sadness or hopelessness that doesn't seem to lift
- anger or irritability
- changes in emotions and more visible expression of them, e.g. anger, guilt, irritability, and you might notice these changes at a particular time of the day, for example, your child can’t get up in the morning as they are feeling very low
- a decreased interest in activities that have previously been important sources of enjoyment
- changes in sleep patterns or appetite
- low energy levels and motivation
- engaging in risk taking behaviours eg sex, alcohol or drug abuse
- trouble concentrating at school or on homework
- thoughts of death or suicide.
What is the difference between adult and teenage depression?
While many of the signs of depression are similar, there are some specific things to look out for in teens that differ from depression in adults. For example:
- anger or irritability 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
- rather than complete isolation, teens tend to withdraw from some people, like 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 from the changes that are involved in teenagers growing up. An obvious change in behaviour and that lasts longer than two weeks may be cause for concern.
What causes depression in young people?
There are many factors that can influence depression in young people. Current research suggests these may include:
- biological or factors like chemical imbalances in the brain
- inherited traits, meaning that depression is more common in people with family members that also have the condition (evidence is inconclusive)
- childhood trauma or abuse
- environmental factors and significant life events, such as a death in the family or divorce, or big changes to routine or lifestyle, such as starting high school, coming out, or moving house or schools
- learned patterns of negative thinking, leading to feelings of helplessness rather than confidence in one’s ability to find solutions to life’s challenges.
How you can help
Depression may respond better to treatment early on, so it’s important to keep an eye out for the signs of depression in case your child needs help. Talk to them and ask them if they are ok. Don’t force the conversation but at least if you bring it up, they’ll know you are there for them and can support them when and if they need it. If depression is impacting on your child’s everyday life and you need further support, don’t hesitate to talk to your family doctor or visit your local headspace centre to get some professional help. There are also web chat and phone counselling services that can help such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline.
Each case is different, check out some practical steps and strategies to support your teenager with depression.