Teens and Recognizing Depression

It can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between normal teen moodiness and actual depression

According to both the US Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health[1], one in five teens will experience clinical depression at some point. This statistic is especially critical, because most people do not understand the difference between actual depression and normal teenage moodiness. Recognizing the risk factors and symptoms of teen depression can help save a young person’s life.

What Is Depression?

Through a complex and fragile system of chemical signals in the prefrontal cortex, the brain controls the following critical psychological functions:

  • Waking and sleeping
  • Appetite, eating and satiation
  • Working for a delayed gratification
  • Self-esteem and mood regulation
  • Sexual attraction and function
  • Impulse control
  • Learning new skills and forming habits
  • Motivation to do work
  • Relational bonding
  • Risk taking and risk aversion

Simply put, activities that create pleasure produce “feel good” chemicals in the brain, which then builds neural pathways (or behavioral shortcuts) to achieve that pleasure again and again. Ultimately, someone no longer needs to think about doing a certain thing in order to feel good, because her brain drives that behavior on a subconscious level. In many ways, this process more powerfully directs behavior than conscious thought can.

In conjunction with this thought, teenagers’ brains are awash with various hormones and brain chemicals that can cause moodiness. Teens are also often frustrated with their bodies, and they can become reclusive or insecure. While a certain amount of this behavior is normal, depression is both different and dangerous.

Depression is caused by either a deficiency in mood chemicals or a defect in the way the brain uses them. Furthermore, this mental problem can be caused by genetic issues, substance abuse, trauma or other factors. Many people assume that depression is about sadness, but, while persistent sadness can certainly be a symptom of depression, description usually causes emotional numbness. A depressed person has difficult feeling either pleasure or pain, which can cause him to engage in risky behaviors to feel something either positive or negative. This issue can also cause suicidal thoughts or actions.

Risk Factors for Teen Depression

The following factors increase the risk for depression in teens:

  • Depression runs in the family
  • Death or divorce of parents
  • Relationship problems with significant other
  • Problems at school
  • Bullying
  • Verbal or physical abuse
  • Chronic illness
  • Social awkwardness or anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Being female, as girls are twice as likely as boys to experience depression during teen years

Furthermore, teens often pull away from their parents, so a certain amount of relational distance is to be expected whether your loved one has depression or not. Stay as closely connected to your teen as possible to increase your ability to recognize these factors early.

Symptoms of Depression

Knowing the difference between normal teen moodiness and actual depression is difficult, but engagement with your child can usually tell you what you need to know. The following symptoms are most common of teen depression:

  • Wild mood swings
  • Anger management problems (outbursts and rage)
  • Hyper-sensitivity
  • Frequent pain, nausea or general malaise
  • Loss of interest in friends, social activities or hobbies
  • Inability to enjoy life or have fun
  • Excessive tiredness, sleeping or insomnia
  • Persistent sadness, melancholy or crying
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Marked changes in appetite or eating
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Reckless behavior (thrill seeking)
  • Dropping grades or poor school attendance
  • Lack of motivation to do anything
  • Suicidal or hopeless comments

Talking to your teen about your concerns is good, but you might have to push more than usual to discover the truth. Many depressed people are unaware of their depression and are unmotivated to seek help. If you are concerned about your teen, then spend time with him and take him to a healthcare provider for a checkup. A medical problem may affect his emotional health, but depression may also hinder his behavior.

Successfully Treating Teen Depression

The good news is that teen depression is highly treatable. While millions of teens safely outgrow their depression, many benefit from careful medical treatment and therapy. It is possible for a depressed teen to recognize depressive episodes and to manage them with certain behavioral techniques. Within the context of comprehensive care, a depressed teen can benefit her emotional health with the following behaviors:

  • Learning to communicate about emotions better
  • Using artistic expression as a way of communicating feelings
  • Avoiding reclusion and excessive sleeping
  • Engaging in physical activities, especially outdoors and with others
  • Developing a healthy diet and exercise regimen
  • Animal therapy
  • Serving others

In some cases, a period of inpatient care is best. Other teens do well with outpatient care, but only a mental health specialist can help you know which type of treatment will be best for your loved one.

Help for Teenage Depression

If you would like more information about teen depression or have questions about the best kind of treatment for yourself, child or friend, then please call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline right now. Our admissions coordinators can connect you to the best recovery resources for your specific needs. Depression is a scary disease, so do not let another day go by before you get the help you need.

[1] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000648.htm