Differentiating Teen Depression, Dysthymia, and Down in the Dumps

It’s estimated that about 10 to 15 percent of teens are depressed at any given time. In fact, research indicates that one of every four adolescents will have an episode of teen depression during high school, beginning as early as 14 years old. If untreated, periods of depression can last several months and can possibly lead to suicide.





The word depression has Latin roots that mean “pressed down”. It is as though the energy of the mind and heart has been pushed inward instead of expressed and leaves an individual feeling “down”, despondent, or low. One symptom that is common with depression, among adults and adolescents alike, is the loss of an ability to enjoy things. A teen might lose interest in sports, favorite classes, friends, and socializing. Other symptoms include:


  • Feeling down
  • Irritability
  • Guilt
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Indecision
  • Slow thinking
  • Loss of motivation
  • Sleep disturbance – insomnia / hypersomnia
  • Appetite disturbance – weight loss/gain
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Constipation





A milder form of teen depression is a dysthymia. It is a chronic but low-level experience of depression, usually accompanied by irritability and an inability to experience joy. It includes the above symptoms but in a milder form. This form of depression can last longer and episodes of dysthymia can range from months to years. In fact, many depressed adults can trace their low feelings back to childhood and adolescence.


However, whether dysthymia or depression, a diagnosis is typically missed in male teens. Instead, male adolescents will act out their sadness and externalize it with aggression. Although they may have higher rates of teen depression than girls, it is often missed because of their externalizing behavior.



Down in the Dumps


Certainly, there are challenges that come with the transition from childhood to adulthood, but most teens get through this change without significant behavioral issues or disturbance. Despite this, there will be periods of adolescence that will look like depression. Teenagers will experience discouragement, feelings of not fitting in, uncertainty about the future, an inability to meet the demands of parents and teachers, and this may result in a sullen mood. However, it may not be significant enough to be diagnosed as a psychological illness.


Sadly, psychological health is not well emphasized in society. Other forms of health, such as physical well-being, are given importance, perhaps because it is visible and apparent to others. Psychological health, however, can be easily made discreet. One can look great but feel horrible inside and no one would know. Furthermore, psychological illness continues to have a stigma that admitting to having a mental illness, seeing a psychologist, or taking psychotropic medication easily warrants judgment.


Yet, this shouldn’t stop a parent or teen from seeking the appropriate help, if needed. As a parent or caregiver, if you have a concern about the mental health of your child, it is always better to err on the side of getting professional help. In order to be diagnosed for depression, your child must meet certain diagnostic criteria. This, along with knowing the emotional and behavioral history of your child as well as the history of depression in your family will assist a psychologist or therapist in making an accurate diagnosis.


Whether you and your child leave the office of a psychologist with a diagnosis or not, at least you have acquired the information you need to determine whether your teenager’s behavior is typical of adolescence. This information empowers you to make the best decisions for the health and well being of your teen.




Heller, K. (2012). Depression in Teens and Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/depression-in-teens-and-children/00010763