Being a teenager can be tough. There are changes taking place in your body and brain that can affect how you learn, think, and behave. And if you are facing tough or stressful situations, it is normal to have emotional ups and downs.
But if you have been overwhelmingly sad for a long time (a few weeks to months) and you’re not able to concentrate or do the things you usually enjoy; you may want to talk to a trusted adult about depression.
Teen depression is a serious mental health problem that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in activities. It can cause emotional, functional and physical problems.
What Is Depression
Depression (major depressive disorder) is a medical illness that can interfere with your ability to handle your daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or managing your school work. Depression is common but that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. Treatment may be needed for someone to feel better. Depression can happen at any age, but often symptoms begin in the teens or early 20s or 30s. It can occur along with other mental disorders, substance abuse, and other health conditions.
Teen depression signs and symptoms include a change from the teenager’s previous attitude and behavior that can cause significant distress and problems at school or home, in social activities, or in other areas of life.
Depression symptoms can vary in severity, but changes in your teen’s emotions and behaviour may include the examples below.
Signs of Depression
Sadness is something we all experience. It is a normal reaction to a loss or a setback, but it usually passes with a little time. Depression is different.
If you are wondering if you may have depression, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you constantly feel sad, anxious, or even “empty,” like you feel nothing?
- Do you feel hopeless or like everything is going wrong?
- Do you feel like you’re worthless or helpless? Do you feel guilty about things?
- Do you feel irritable much of the time?
- Do you find yourself spending more time alone and withdrawing from friends and family?
- Are your grades dropping?
- Have you lost interest or pleasure in activities and hobbies that you used to enjoy?
- Have your eating or sleeping habits changed (eating or sleeping more than usual or less than usual)?
- Do you have aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or stomach problems without a clear cause?
- Do you ever think about dying or suicide? Have you ever tried to harm yourself?
It’s not known exactly what causes depression, but a variety of issues may be involved. These include:
- Brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When these chemicals are abnormal or impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems changes, leading to depression.
- Hormones. Changes in the body’s balance of hormones may be involved in causing or triggering depression.
- Inherited traits. Depression is more common in people whose blood relatives — such as a parent or grandparent — also have the condition.
- Early childhood trauma. Traumatic events during childhood, such as physical or emotional abuse, or loss of a parent, may cause changes in the brain that make a person more susceptible to depression.
- Learned patterns of negative thinking. Teen depression may be linked to learning to feel helpless — rather than learning to feel capable of finding solutions for life’s challenges.
Many factors increase the risk of developing or triggering teen depression, including:
- Having issues that negatively impact self-esteem, such as obesity, peer problems, long-term bullying or academic problems
- Having been the victim or witness of violence, such as physical or sexual abuse
- Having other mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, a personality disorder, anorexia or bulimia
- Having a learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Having ongoing pain or a chronic physical illness such as cancer, diabetes or asthma
- Having certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem or being overly dependent, self-critical or pessimistic
- Abusing alcohol, nicotine or other drugs
- Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in an unsupportive environment
Family history and issues with family or others may also increase your teenager’s risk of depression, such as:
- Having a parent, grandparent or other blood relative with depression, bipolar disorder or alcohol use problems
- Having a family member who died by suicide
- Having a dysfunctional family and family conflict
- Having experienced recent stressful life events, such as parental divorce, parental military service or the death of a loved one
Untreated depression can result in emotional, behavioral and health problems that affect every area of your teenager’s life. Complications related to teen depression may include, for example:
Alcohol and drug misuse; Academic problems; Family conflicts and relationship difficulties; Involvement with the juvenile justice system; Suicide attempts or suicide.
There’s no sure way to prevent depression. However, these strategies may help. Encourage your teenager to:
- Take steps to control stress, increase resilience and boost self-esteem to help handle issues when they arise
- Reach out for friendship and social support, especially in times of crisis
- Get treatment at the earliest sign of a problem to help prevent depression from worsening
- Maintain ongoing treatment, if recommended, even after symptoms let up, to help prevent a relapse of depression symptoms
- What’s normal and what’s not
When to see a doctor
If depression signs and symptoms continue, begin to interfere in your teen’s life, or cause you to have concerns about suicide or your teen’s safety, talk to a doctor or a mental health professional trained to work with adolescents. Your teen’s family doctor or pediatrician is a good place to start. Or your teen’s school may recommend someone.
Depression symptoms likely won’t get better on their own — and they may get worse or lead to other problems if untreated. Depressed teenagers may be at risk of suicide, even if signs and symptoms don’t appear to be severe.
If you’re a teen and you think you may be depressed — or you have a friend who may be depressed — don’t wait to get help. Talk to a health care provider such as your doctor or school nurse. Share your concerns with a parent, a close friend, a spiritual leader, a teacher or someone else you trust.
When to get emergency help
Suicide is often associated with depression. If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you’re having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health professional.
- Seek help from your primary care doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
- If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:
- Make sure someone stays with that person.
- Call your local emergency number immediately.
- Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.
Never ignore comments or concerns about suicide. Always take action to get help.
Why can’t you just ‘snap out’ of depression?
Well-meaning friends or family members may try to tell someone with depression to “snap out of it,” “just be positive,” or “you can be happier if you just try harder.” But depression is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. Most people with depression need treatment to get better.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between ups and downs that are just part of being a teenager and teen depression. Talk with your teen. Try to determine whether he or she seems capable of managing challenging feelings, or if life seems overwhelming.