It was originally thought that the symptoms of children and adolescent depression are different than those experienced by adults. Clinicians and researchers believed this until about the 1970’s. And who can blame them. The adolescent brain is still developing. For this reason, it is easy to imagine that teens would experience depression differently.
For instance, the grey matter of the brain, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and is known as the thinking part of the brain, is still growing in teens. However, for adults, the brain’s grey matter development is complete. Alongside this is the still developing frontal cortex, which completes its growth during ages 23-26. The frontal cortex performs reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, necessities for being an adult. This might explain a teen’s tendency to make poor decisions and an inability to discern whether a situation is safe. Teens tend to experiment with risky behavior and don’t fully recognize the consequences of their choices.
Despite these differences in brain development, research indicates that adolescents, as well as children, display the same symptoms of depression as adults. In 1987, a study of 296 children and teens between the ages of 6 and 18 carefully examined their symptoms of depression. The study revealed that although there were some differences in the symptomatic experiences of children in different age groups, there were more similarities.
Furthermore, a more recent study showed that adolescents between the ages of 14 to 18 tended to have symptoms that were typical of adult depression. The symptoms of depression in adults include depressed mood, sleep disturbance, thinking difficulties, weight/appetite disturbance, worthlessness or guilt, loss of energy, and suicidal ideation. Among adolescents in the study, 97 to 54 percent of them reported experiencing these same symptoms.
Lastly, research indicates that younger teens tend to have symptoms of depression that are more anxiety-oriented. Such as fearfulness and nervousness. At the same time, older adolescents tend to show symptoms of loss of interest and pleasure. They tend to have morbid thinking and suicidal ideation. Those adolescents that are severely depressed will exhibit signs of psychosis, which is a loss of touch with reality. They might experience hallucinations or delusions or both. Psychotic symptoms of depression are rare in teens, but when present, they indicate a severe form of major depression.
Adolescent depression continues to be a common mental illness among teens. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately, 8% of teens meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression. Across the length of adolescence, one in five teens have experienced depression at some point in their teenage years. NAMI also points out that in clinical settings, such as group homes, hospitals, or rehabilitative centers, as many as 28 percent of teens experience depression.
Fortunately, depression is treatable. With the right medication combined with therapy, a teen’s mood can stabilize and, over time, he or she can return to a healthy level of functioning at school, home, and work. What’s important to know is that depression is best treated with a combination of both medication and therapy. Medication alone is not a thorough treatment plan. Therapy can facilitate a teen’s understanding for the need of medication treatment, and it can even improve the effectiveness of that medication. Both treatment forms are necessary for a safe, effective recovery from depression.