What Teen Depression Really Feels Like According to a 16-Year Old

In a recent Huffington Post article, one adolescent lays it all out on the line. She cuts through the exaggeration most teens use to describe their lives and gets serious about the way depression can bring feelings of despair.

Most teens, she wrote, use strong language to describe their day. If it was a bad day, for example, it was “the worst day ever”. If the day went well, then it was the “best day ever”. And if teens are feeling good about a friendship with a peer, then he or she is “the best friend in the whole world”. Yet, this extreme language gets in the way of teens understanding what depression really is.

The author of the article, 16-year old Elise Jamison from Ohio, makes clear that when a teen says that he or she is “depressed” it might simply be a form of exaggeration. “There is nothing more frustrating,” she wrote, “than someone who says they are clinically depressed because they are feeling sad that day.”  A teen might feel sad or lost or confused or even simply down that day. But clinical depression is more than that; it’s a feeling of “despondency and dejection” she writes, using the definition provided by the Mayo Clinic. And it’s an experience that continues to happen over a period of time. It’s not a feeling you experience one day; it’s a chronic experience.

“Depression,” she wrote, ” is the dark emptiness you feel that makes you believe you can contribute nothing to anyone or anything. You feel like your life means nothing to anyone.”

And she’s right. Depression is often an experience of heaviness with little energy to do things and even sometimes no energy to move at all. Elise Jamison was diagnosed with teen depression at the age of 14 and has spent the last two years working through the challenging symptoms it brings. Some signs of depression include:

  • Anger and aggression, especially in male depressed teens
  • Low self-esteem, high self-criticism, extreme pessimism, especially if they are female
  • Anxiety
  • Confused and dysfunctional thinking
  • High self-consciousness
  • Irritable / depressed mood – the DSM allows for irritable mood to substitute for depressed mood in the criteria for making a diagnosis for depression.
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Poor interpersonal problem solving and high stress from close relationships
  • Antisocial behavior, particularly in males
  • Sleep disturbance – insomnia / hypersomnia
  • Appetite disturbance – weight loss/gain
  • Difficulty coping with stress from relationships, family environment, or depressed parents
  • Symptoms of other mental illnesses, which are common to co-exist with teen depression, such as ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders.
  • Guilt
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Indecision
  • Slow thinking
  • Headaches
  • Constipation

The most characteristic symptom of depression, however, is a pervasive feeling of sadness that is heavy and often feels oppressive. Some teens occasionally describe depression as one of the most painful experiences they’ve had. It is often physically apparent, where facial muscles slump, eyes are often downward facing, and shoulders fall inward. Some teens might slip into crying quite easily.

Yet, teens will express depression in many ways. Some teens who suffer from depression might have a hard time expressing this uncomfortable state. For example, when a parent asks their teen whether he or she is feeling depressed or sad, he actually may not be able to identify a painful mental state. Instead, he might express a physical ailment, such as a headache or stomachache. Some teens may appear joyless and irritable, and for those who feel uncomfortable expressing sadness, such as adolescent boys, despair might be expressed through anger or self-destructive behaviors.

Teen depression is a chronic experience of sadness and despair, not a feeling that shows up in the middle of the day, as Elise Jamison points out. In these cases, getting professional support can ease the painful experience and eventually help bring happiness back into your life.