Identifying and Treating Teen Depression

It is clear that depression is a commonly occurring psychological disorder among teens. For this reason, depression is one of the most studied mental illnesses. In order to help prevent and better treat the illness, researchers continue to search for clues on how the illness develops, reasons behind the high prevalence in teens, and the way the brain behaves when a teen is depressed.


However, two major issues in the field of mental health are obstacles to treating teen depression. These are not being able to identify those teens that are in fact depressed through school screenings or surveys, for example, and not having the resources to treat those teens who are identified as being depressed.


In fact, screenings for mental illness has been a recommendation by federal health officials for over a decade. However, it is still not mandatory. There are schools across the country that do in fact screen for mental health concerns; however, there is no consistency that takes place among all schools, what age they screen for, and what type of illness they screen. Clearly, screening would be a good idea, as it is for physical health concerns. Schools often screen for infectious diseases, but not for common behavioral disorders that can be costly to the student, parents, and to the community, as seen in school shootings.


Despite the clear benefits to screening students, there are some cons that keep the process from happening. Some school administrators and parents are afraid that there will be an over-diagnosis of students as well as giving them life-long labels that they will have to bear. Another significant concern of many is the fear that school screenings will uncover illnesses in their students that they do not have the financial resources to treat. In fact, there are all sorts of problems that arise with school screenings. There are false positives – students who appear to have a problem but don’t. There are also the inability of schools to provide certain accommodations for students, financial or otherwise, to prevent their diagnosis from getting in the way of their learning. And lastly, some parents simply do not want their children treated despite a screening that pointed to a psychological disorder. The most common reason behind this is the fear that experts only want to medicate the problem rather than providing educational support.


Despite the administrative problems within schools regarding treating and preventing teen depression, some students eventually find their way to the services they need. Yet, sadly, only a small proportion of the teen population is seeking care for depressive symptoms even if they are aware that they might be suffering from depression. To make matters worse, it is uncommon for a teen to be identified as having depression in an outpatient setting, which is where most adolescents receive psychological and medical care.


A recent study explored the rates of depression among adolescents in California. Using data from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, the study found that under 1/3 of California teens ages 12 to 17 reported talking to their medical providers about their emotions or mood. Females (37.5%) were more likely to report their emotional symptoms and were more likely screened for emotional distress than male teens (25.1%). Furthermore, only 34% of teens reported that their doctors discussed their emotions with them of which 36.4% were females and 30.4% were male.


The danger of not being able to identify or properly treat adolescents who are depressed is that untreated depression only gets worse. It can lead to hospitalization and suicide. Research reveals that untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there were 38,3641 suicides (teens and adults both) reported in 2010. Teen suicide is the third leading cause of death of adolescents. The National Institute of Mental Health indicates that there are as many as 25 attempts of suicide to every one that is actually committed. Male teens are four more times likely to die from suicide, whereas female adolescents are more likely to make suicide attempts.


There is a clear need for the mental health field to improve its ability to identify and treat depressed adolescents. However, here’s where parents and caregivers can step in. Parents can look for common red flags and symptoms of depression in their children. These include sadness, low mood, disturbances in sleep and eating patterns, social withdrawal, and feeling guilt or shame. If you have any indication that teen depression exists, there’s no harm in having your child psychologically assessed. Doing so can in fact save his or her life.




NIHCM Foundation. (February 2010). Improving Early Identification and Treatment of Adolescent Depression: Considerations and Strategies for Health Plans. Retrieved on May 23, 2014 from: