Adolescent Depression Causes, Signs, and Prevention

Is your teen just moody, or is he or she depressed? This is a question that many parents ask themselves. The adolescent years are rife with mood swings; how can you tell if there’s a problem that needs to be addressed, or if your teenager’s negative emotions are just a result of hormone surges and stress? Read on to learn more about the symptoms, risk factors, complications, and treatments for adolescent depression. As always, if you are concerned about your teen’s mental health, seek professional care promptly.

Symptoms of Adolescent Depression

While you might assume that sadness would the primary sign of adolescent depression, there are actually many ways that the condition can present itself during these tumultuous years. In addition to sadness, the following emotions are ones which commonly come out when someone is depressed:

  • anger
  • irritability
  • guilt
  • hopelessness

It can be difficult to determine whether these feelings are due to depression or normal adolescent mood fluctuations.

If the feelings last for more than two weeks or impact your teen’s day-to-day life, depression could be the cause. Teens who are depressed often lose interest in their favorite activities. They might have insomnia or sleep too much (or a combination of the two). They also might experience changes in appetite. Physical symptoms of depression are often mistaken for mild illness and can include the following:

  • stomachaches
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • muscle pain

Causes and Risk Factors

Sometimes teenagers can develop depression without a clear reason. There are, however, some risk factors that could raise your child’s chances of developing the condition.

1. Genetics – If you, your child’s other parent, or other close family members have struggled with depression or other mental health disorders, this could be a risk factor for your teen.

2. Serious illness – If your teenager or another family member is dealing with a chronic disease or a serious acute illness, depression might develop.

3. Troubled background – A past experience of abuse, traumatic events, or substance addiction can be a cause of depression.

4. Certain medications – Medications that your teen might be taking for other health conditions can cause depression.

5. The loss of a loved one – This is another strong risk factor.

If your teen is going through some type of difficult event or having a hard time with conflict or trauma, a screening for depression might be warranted.

Depression and Suicide

One of the biggest and most serious complications of adolescent depression is suicide. Suicide is a leading cause of death among adults and teenagers, particularly those under the age of 34. Depression is one of the main risk factors for suicide. A teen who is showing signs of suicidal ideation might progress quickly to a suicide attempt or even a fatal suicide. It’s vital that parents are aware of the signs of being suicidal.

These signs can vary tremendously. If your teenager is talking about death or about how things will be better once they’re gone, this is one sign that should be taken seriously. Some teens will turn to drugs or alcohol during this very stressful or depressing time. They might begin to give away treasured items or completely withdraw from others. Your adolescent might drop off of sports teams, stop going out with friends, and neglect to do schoolwork. They might also neglect their appearance and hygiene as though nothing matters.

Treatment for Adolescent Depression

There are effective treatments for depression that affects teenagers. Sometimes, counseling such as psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy is effective. Other times, doctors may add medications (antidepressants) to the treatment plan. There are some medications that are FDA-approved for use in teenagers, but they are always used with caution because antidepressants occasionally cause a worsening of symptoms in young people under the age of 25.

For cases of mild depression and as a complement to medication in more severe depression, lifestyle changes might be recommended by your teen’s doctor or therapist. These include:

  • exercise
  • following a healthy diet
  • meditation or other types of relaxation methods
  • getting enough sleep

All of these activities can be difficult to do with depression, but if you can encourage your teen to give them a try, they can help.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that strikes during the winter months. Using a special light or taking certain supplements can help in some cases. Always talk to a mental health care professional before trying any at-home remedies, and do not discontinue therapy or medication without talking to a doctor.

How You Can Help a Depressed Teenager

If you think your teen is depressed, talk to him or her about it. Find out how they are feeling and what they think is making them feel that way. Sometimes, just talking about it will help your teen feel better. Keep track of how long his or her symptoms last. Mild symptoms that last for two weeks warrant an evaluation. Severe symptoms that concern you are a cause for prompter consultation. Make an appointment with your teen’s primary care physician to rule out physical illness; there are some physical conditions that can cause the symptoms of depression.

Your teen will be referred to a mental health professional if depression is suspected. Talk to this healthcare provider about the different options. Encourage your teen to stick to the treatment plan. Supervise the use of any medications prescribed; antidepressants must be taken exactly as directed and can’t be stopped suddenly. Learn about what not to say to a person who is depressed and distribute this information among your family members. If you suspect that your teen is in immediate danger of taking his or her own life, remove access to any weapons or substances and call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room.

It can be overwhelming and scary when your teen gets the diagnoses with depression. Your teen can feel the same way. Encourage them by reminding them that things will get better; depression does not last forever. Also, consider getting counseling or joining a support group yourself. Being the caregiver of someone with depression can be exhausting. Take good care of yourself so you can care for your teenager.