Teenage depression is a pressing and real mental disorder in America, becoming increasingly common among teens, especially teenage girls.

It can be difficult to diagnose depression in teens and differentiate depression from hormonal teenage behavior, but early intervention is crucial to treating teen depression.

Take a closer look at how depression is becoming more common among American teens, how to identify depression in your daughter or son, teenage depression treatment options, and how to help a teen you love to cope with depression.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a common medical mental illness that interferes with daily living. Teens with depression may suffer from the following health conditions, which include:

  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having difficulty eating
  • Having difficulty managing their school work
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Withdrawing from social activities and become socially isolated

While depression can happen at any age, symptoms often begin in the teen years or early 20s-30s.

There are two common forms of depression found in teens – major depressive disorder and dysthymic (dysthymia) disorder, or persistent depressive disorder.

  1. Major depressive disorder is a combination of symptoms that interfere with daily life and affect a teen’s ability to eat, play, study and work.
  2. Dysthymic disorder is identified by long-term (at least two years) but less severe symptoms that may not be as disabling but still prevent normal functioning and affect the quality of life.

People with depression typically need treatment from a health care provider or mental health services to get better. They are often unable to self-motivate or "snap out of it."

It is important to remember that depression is not a character flaw or sign of weakness in your teenage daughter or son. It is a mental illness that goes beyond lethargy and sadness to have a negative impact on teens' lives.

Depression and Teenagers: A Growing Issue in the United States

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, teen depression rates are rapidly rising. In 2007, 8% (approximately 2 million) of American teens between the ages of 12-17 said they experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

Ten years later, by 2017, that number had risen to 13%, roughly 3.2 million teens, marking a 59% increase in teens with depression.

Of the 3.2 million teens who said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, 2.4 million were teenage girls. Also, the rate of growth for depression was faster for teen girls than for boys, 66% compared to 44%.

In the fall of 2018, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 70% of teens felt that anxiety and depression were significant issues in their local community. In the survey, 26% identified it as a minor problem. Additionally, nearly 30% of teens said they felt nervous or tense about their day every day.

The Signs and Symptoms of Teen Depression

It can be difficult to identify depression and mood disorders in teens, as these are all too frequently dismissed as hormonal teen behavior. However, there are distinct differences between depression and typical teen angst, and being sad is not the same as having depression.

Chronic feelings of hopelessness and sadness lasting for at least two weeks may indicate that a teen is experiencing a major depressive episode. When determining if your teen daughter or son is experiencing depression, it is essential to consider how long they have been exhibiting symptoms, how different they are acting and how severe the symptoms are. Many signs of depression can be explained by hormones and stress – but some cannot, and it is crucial to know the difference.

There are many potential causes of depression and many factors affecting the mental health of teens, like:

  1. Difficult family situations, such as domestic abuse or violence, poverty, or other family and social problems.
  2. Genetic predisposition, however, not all teens who are predisposed will develop the condition, and some with no family history of teen depression can develop it.
  3. Medical conditions, including hypothyroidism.
  4. Substance abuse may also lead to depression.
  5. Traumatic life events, defined as any event that causes distress or trauma or a significant lifestyle change, can contribute to depression.

Causes and Symptoms of Teenage Depression

Other signs of depression in teenagers may include:

  • Anger, hostility or irritability
  • Changes in eating habits (eating disorders)
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Fatigue, lack of energy or lethargy
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Frequent crying
  • Hopelessness or sadness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of interest in extracurricular activities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor school performance
  • Restlessness
  • Self-harm or thoughts of self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Withdrawal from family, friends and social circles
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Teen Depression vs. Adult Depression

Unlike depression in adults, teens often rely on caregivers, parents and teachers to identify signs of depression. Also, many teens with depression do not appear sad. Teens trying to cope with depression may display agitation, anger and irritability.

Adults who are dealing with depression often isolate themselves from all people, but teenagers tend to keep up with friendships. They may isolate from adults or change their friend circles. Many teens with depression, especially those who are ‘overachievers’ may become extremely sensitive to criticism or rejection and become angry with others when any criticism is expressed.

Lastly, depressed teens often complain of unexplained aches and pains like headaches or stomachaches, even when a physical exam shows no medical cause.

Depression, Suicide and Teenagers

Depression dramatically increases the risk of suicide. Suicide is a serious problem among all ages, but especially in teens.

In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for young adults between the ages of 15-24, and the number of teens considering suicide is rising.

The 2019 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found that nearly 19% of high school teens seriously considered attempting suicide, and a shocking 9% attempted suicide.

Suicide Warning Signs in Teens

Knowing the warning signs can prevent teen suicide.

If your teen daughter or son expresses any of the following, get professional help immediately:

  • Disengaging from social media profiles
  • Engaging in reckless behaviors
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Idealizing death
  • Joking or talking about suicide
  • Saying goodbye to family and friends
  • Seeking out pills or weapons
  • Writing poems or stories about death, dying, or suicide

For 24-hour suicide prevention and support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Treating Depression in Teenagers

The good news is that depression is among the most treatable mental health disorders, and between 80-90% of people respond well to treatment. However, adolescent depression can be very damaging when left untreated, so it is vital to get help and not assume it will go away on its own.

The two most common forms of treatment for depression in teens are antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be done one-on-one or involve the family. Through regular psychotherapy sessions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy, teens can identify the causes of their depression, make changes in unhealthy behaviors, set realistic goals, regain a sense of happiness, and mitigate symptoms of depression.

There are two types of antidepressant medications approved for teen use by the FDA. Finding the right medication can take time, and some antidepressants may increase thoughts of suicide, so it is important to watch teens taking antidepressants carefully.

Residential treatment centers are a very effective treatment method for teens dealing with anxiety and depression. By removing the individual from their environment, counselors at residential treatment centers can identify and isolate potential triggers and work with students to manage these triggers and control their reactions to external influences.

How Embark Helps Teens Heal From Depression

Embark is a family of behavioral health programs across the United States that offers support to struggling teens and their families. While each program is unique, all are united by a passionate commitment to teenagers and young adults' mental health, delivering innovative and high-quality mental health care from experienced mental health professionals.

At every program, we build trust by building relationships where students heal and thrive at their own pace. Committed to long-term success, Embark programs deliver lasting change in families' lives, finding healing from mental health problems.

Your healing journey starts here.

Contact Embark Behavioral Health to learn more about how to treat depression in teens, today.

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