What Are the Causes of Teenager Depression?

Approximately one out of five teens suffers from depression before they reach adulthood. Even more concerning, suicide is a leading cause of death among young people; in addition, many more suicides are attempted than completed. What is causing all of these cases of adolescent depression? The answers are not clear-cut, but there are certain risk factors that can make one prone to developing the condition. Here are some of the causes and risk factors of teen depression as well as tips on getting help for a teen who might be depressed.

Biological Causes of Adolescent Depression

Some causes of adolescent depression are biological. For example, brain chemicals can have an effect on a person’s mood and can cause depression. Hormones are another biological cause of the condition. Since hormone and chemical levels change during puberty, it is not uncommon for young teens to begin to develop depression for the first time.


Teenagers who have a family history of mental health conditions (including but not limited to depression) are more likely to develop depression and other mental health issues. The jury is out as to whether nature or nurture is the bigger factor, but it is clear that there is at least some genetic factor and also some environmental factors that stem from the family mental health history. If your teen has a family history of mental illness, he or she is not necessarily destined to develop depression, but it is useful to know that 20 to 50 percent of teens with depression do have a family history of mental health conditions.

Learned Patterns

If a teen has learned to rely on negative thought patterns throughout childhood, this can lead to adolescent depression. They might learn the patterns due to their own personality or how others around them have reacted to their negative behavior. They might also have learned these patterns from a family member who suffers from depression or who tends to have negative thought patterns. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help teens learn to turn their thought patterns in a more positive direction.

Early Childhood Trauma

Teens who have had traumatic childhoods are often more prone to depression than the average teen. This includes adolescents who:

  • Were abused or neglected as children
  • Witnessed a traumatic event (such as a violent assault)
  • Were victims of a violent crime (such as rape or physical assault)

The loss of a parent or sibling during childhood is another traumatic event that can cause depression later, either during the teen years or during adulthood. The event might also have occurred during the teen years, either very recently or a few years ago.

Poor Self-Esteem

Teens with low self-esteem tend to be prone to depression. There are often external factors that lead to low self-esteem. These can include physical issues such as obesity that make your teen feel poorly about his or her self-image. They can also include academic problems, a personality disorder, or having been bullied in school, particularly if it was not resolved and is still happening. Emotional abuse or neglect is another cause of poor self-esteem in some teens.

Physical Illness

Teens with chronic conditions or severe illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, or physical disabilities might be more prone to developing adolescent depression. Depending on the illness or condition, the adolescent might not be able to do the same things their peers are doing or they might be facing the possibility of an early death. Counseling is important for teens who have been diagnosed with (or who have been living with) this type of chronic or severe condition if they seem to be struggling.

ADHD or Learning Disability

Teens who have ADHD, a learning disability, or processing disorder such as autism can be prone to developing depression. They often have low self-esteem due to not being able to do what seems to come to others easily. This can be the case particularly if their disability has been undiagnosed until recently because they might not have developed the coping skills or had the therapy that they would have had throughout their childhood.

Substance Abuse

Teens who use or abuse alcohol and other substances are more prone to adolescent depression. In addition, those with a family history of alcoholism and addiction might be more likely to develop depression. The correlation works in reverse, too: Teens who suffer from depression often try to self-medicate with alcohol and other substances. Those who are being treated for addiction often need to be treated for depression as well.

Unsupported LGBTQ

Many people think that simply being LGBTQ makes someone more prone to depression. The reason these youths are more likely to suffer from depression is that they often find intolerance among their families, friends, and society in general. If your teen has come out as LGBTQ, providing a supportive environment and encouraging them to find a support network in the community can be the key to preventing depression.

Getting Help for Your Depressed Adolescent

If you are concerned that your teen might be depressed, try to have an open dialogue about the issue. Make note of any symptoms you are noticing and bring them to his or her primary care physician. Some of the symptoms of adolescent depression include:

  • Sadness or a feeling of worthlessness that lasts for two weeks or that interferes with daily life
  • Losing interest in most or all of the activities they once enjoyed
  • Not grooming, showering, or dressing the way they usually do
  • Isolating themselves in their bedroom and not interacting with others
  • Plummeting grades at school
  • Dropping out of extracurricular activities and sports teams
  • Talking about wanting to die or planning or attempting suicide

While many teens require counseling and, in some cases, medication for their depression, a healthy lifestyle can also help. Encourage your teen to get enough sleep, to eat a healthy diet, and to exercise daily. All of these healthy activities can go a long way toward preventing depression in those who are prone and can improve symptoms in those who already have mild or moderate depression.