Understanding and Seeking Treatment
Adolescence is an emotional rollercoaster for many, during which teens and young adults experience dramatic shifts in their moods. While this turbulent period of development is known for difficult emotions, persistent or extreme negative feelings should not be accepted as “par for the course.”
More complicated and potentially debilitating than occasional feelings of sadness, depression is a mood disorder which can impact every aspect of a teen or young adult’s life and which often requires professional treatment.
Left untreated, depression can wreak havoc on a young person’s mental and physical health and lead to decreased quality of life, withdrawal from relationships, work, and school, and possibly even to self-harm or suicidality. Unfortunately, depression is common in teens and young adults, with “around 11 percent of young people [having] experienced an episode by the end of [their] teenage years.” Depression in teens and young adults often requires expert treatment from mental health professionals.
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The Most Common Signs of Depression
The first step in treating depression in teens and young adults is to learn to recognize it. Depression is often accompanied by a host of behavioral and physical symptoms. These can include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emotional numbness
- Frequent or extreme experiences of self-doubt, self-hatred, worthlessness, or guilt
- Increased irritability or frustration, even in the face of seemingly minor annoyances
- A lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities or socialization with friends and family
- Decreases in energy, which may be tied to sleep issues like insomnia or oversleeping
- Cognitive effects like slowed thinking, “brain fog”, or difficulty in concentrating on tasks or making decisions
- Weight gain from overeating or a lack of activity, or weight loss from stress
- Thoughts or attempts at self-harm or suicidal ideation
- A general inability to experience pleasure, known as anhedonia
- Uncharacteristic or abrupt changes in behavior (i.e. a teen suddenly acting out when it is out of step with their personality)
Forms of Teen & Young Adult Depression
Most instances of the term “depression” refer to major depressive disorder, characterized by severe and persistent low mood and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. There are, however, numerous types of depression which vary in their causes, severity, symptoms, and appropriate treatment approaches.
- Persistent depressive disorder, also known as dysthymia, can have “fewer or less severe symptoms than major depressive disorder” but lasts longer. Often, dysthymia lasts for more than a year. Although it is often described as “low-grade” depression, dysthymia requires treatment and is not a negligible form of depression.
- Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression which tends to worsen in a particular time of year.
- Bipolar disorder is not considered a depressive disorder. It does, however, involve severe mood changes where depressive episodes alternate with manic periods of increased energy and potential risky behavior.
Different forms of depression can require different treatment interventions. Knowing how to differentiate between these types of depression can help parents understand the causes and possible interventions for their teen or young adult’s struggles.
What Causes Depression in Teens & Young Adults?
Depression in teens and young adults can stem from a variety of sources. A partial list includes hormonal changes, imbalances or abnormalities in brain chemistry, and traumatic or highly stressful life experiences. Certain conditions also increase the risk of developing depression, including:
- A family history of depression
- A high level of stress
- The presence of other mental health conditions, like anxiety or a personality disorder
- Having a learning disability or ADHD
- Personality traits such as being highly self-conscious, self-critical, or having a tendency towards rumination
Research has shown that a family history of depression, along with a high level of exposure to stress, are the strongest risk factors for depression in adolescents. Although anyone can suffer from depression, women experience depression at notably higher rates than men. Teens and young adults suffering from depression will likely exhibit some obvious changes in behavior, but they may also attempt to hold their feelings inside and maintain a facade of normality. Many teenagers might be hesitant to ask for help.
Common Barriers to Treatment for Teens and Young Adults
Many teenagers with depressive feelings are hesitant to ask for help from others, or to consider professional treatment, out of a fear of judgement or being misunderstood. Teens may feel that depression and mental health disorders mark one as abnormal, weak, ill-adjusted, or “crazy.” Teens may interpret their feelings as isolated incidents, minimize their experiences, or simply justify them as normal feelings for teenagers.
Maintaining regular communication with one’s teenager is the best way to ensure their emotional health and stay on top of changes which may signal a problem. If you’ve noticed signs of depression in your teenager, ask how they have been feeling and gently bring up areas or behaviors that concern you. Try not to lead with accusations or bombard your teenager with too many questions at once. Instead, it’s best to prompt a discussion, listen, and offer support.
When discussing the possibility of professional treatment for your teen or young adult’s depression, listen to your child’s concerns and questions and be ready to address them with an open mind. Stress that the goal of seeking a professional diagnosis and treatment is to help them cope with their feelings and give them the tools to solve underlying problems. Teens and young adults may resist the idea of treatment because of fears of medication or stigmas around treatment. Try and be respectful of these concerns, while encouraging compromise or positive first steps towards treatment where possible.
Effective Treatments for Teen and Young Adult Depression
Treatment for depression in teens and young adults can take a variety of forms, depending on the individual’s experience of depression, its causes and severity, and their preferences. The first step of treatment, regardless of the specific path one chooses, should involve consultation with a health care provider or mental health professional. From there, parents and their teens or young adults can consider a variety of therapeutic, medication-based, and lifestyle modification options.
Many therapeutic options exist to treat depression. These usually involve talk-based sessions with a licensed therapist who specializes in one of multiple therapeutic approaches.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is one of the most common talk-therapy-based treatment modalities for depression. CBT helps individuals identify limiting thoughts and beliefs and replace them with more affirming, accurate, and helpful ones over time. CBT teaches teens and young adults to recognize the emotional causes and processes of depression, and to respond with healthier coping strategies and beliefs.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is focused around mindfulness of emotional processes. The goal is to achieve a balance between the acceptance of difficult thoughts and feelings on the one hand and one’s ability to make positive change on the other. DBT was designed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, but has since been adapted to treat numerous other mental health conditions. This speaks to its efficacy in addressing emotional challenges which may occur in multiple conditions.
- Interpersonal Therapy is a therapeutic approach based around examining and working on relationships in one’s life. Teens and young adults learn positive and healthy ways to interact with peers, family, and others, which help them identify healthy boundaries and positively cope with difficult situations, like transitions in relationships and grief.
Other therapeutic approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, group and family-based interventions, and mindfulness-based interventions can also be effective depending on one’s presentation of depression.
Medications address the chemical imbalances in the brain which contribute to depression. Many medications exist to combat depression, each with their own mechanisms and potentially serious side-effects to consider. Antidepressants can be profoundly helpful for individuals struggling with moderate to severe cases of depression. However, they also carry a risk of serious side effects, including the possibility of increasing suicidal ideation and aggression in teens. Careful monitoring with any new medication is thus highly recommended. Medication for depression can be a vital part of a treatment plan, but it is not a decision to make without consultation with a qualified medical professional.
Lifestyle changes are another way to treat depression, but are likely not enough alone to combat serious cases. Instead, they can aid your teenager or young adult’s physical and mental health in other ways. Exercise, stress-relieving practices like meditation, or a healthier diet are common lifestyle changes which can help a person feel physically better and cope more healthily with the difficult feelings associated with depression. Some of these practices, like exercise, have also been shown to aid in reducing depressive symptoms. Positive lifestyle changes can be incredibly helpful when combined with other treatment strategies.
Experiential Treatment for Depression
Experiential treatment for depression can include modalities such as art therapy, music therapy, or animal-assisted therapy. These kinds of treatment approaches can help teens and young adults develop confidence, self-esteem, and communication skills while aiding in the reduction of depressive symptoms. Experiential therapies are generally not used in isolation. Rather, they are introduced as a part of a holistic treatment approach that helps teens or young adults with depression develop new skills and insights that enrich and carry over into their other treatment-related work and their lives as a whole.
Teen Residential Treatment for Depression
Residential treatment can be effective for teenagers or young adults with persistent or moderate to extreme experiences of depression. Home is often a familiar environment, but it can also be associated with difficult memories, be tied to negative influences, or simply be limiting to one’s growth by not pushing one to act. Residential treatment is designed to address the symptoms and conditions that lead to and worsen depression. It offers targeted treatment from trained experts, a supportive social environment that fosters connection with other teens and professionals, and a change in surroundings which encourages teens to push themselves in new ways and develop new skills. Learn how to tell when residential treatment is warranted.
Depression Treatment at Paradigm
Paradigm Treatment Center offers individualized treatment for depression and other co-occurring mental disorders. Our intensive treatment program is the only program to offer daily individual therapy. We also involve the client’s family in the care process with weekly family sessions, and work via group therapy sessions to enable healing and growth as our clients build relationships with their peers at the program.
To break through the confusion and worries that teens, young adults and their families may have around treatment, we offer Psycho-Educational Services which provide our clients with information about mental health and substance abuse disorders and the treatment interventions that work in addressing them. We work to inform our clients and families around the conditions, struggles, and treatment modalities they experience to challenge stigmas, build understanding, and give them the tools to overcome the unique challenges they face.
Paradigm works with a small number of clients so that we maintain a staff-to-client ratio that allows for truly individualized care. This enables us to understand the unique underlying causes of our clients’ depression or other mental health challenges, and develop plans that are tailored to the individual to address them. Our holistic approach goes beyond a mere focus on one mental health condition in our clients. Instead, we use a range of evidence-based modalities to help them overcome their challenges across all areas of health and transform their lives for the better.