Teen Depression on the Rise: What to Look For

Family often first line of defense recognizing signs

A mother comforts her daughter who has depression.

Family often first line of defense recognizing signs

Teen depression is a serious concern. It is a mental health crisis that affects an increasing number of young people. 

Studies show the rate of teen depression has been steadily rising over the past decade.

According to a national survey of high school students:

  • In 2021, 42% of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks.
  • Approximately 22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year.
  • Female students were move likely than male students to experience feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

This trend underscores the importance of recognizing the signs of depression and getting help. Parents, caregivers and family members play a critical role in identifying and treating teen depression.

What can parents do to help?

Understanding teen depression begins at home. Parents should foster an environment where young people feel comfortable discussing their feelings without fear of judgment.

“When it comes to teens, it’s important for parents or guardians to stay positive and keep the lines of communication open,” says Gurinder Dabhia, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo.

Regularly engaging in conversations and offering a listening ear can go a long way.

“It’s okay to be persistent and not give up on your adolescent if he or she refuses to talk at first,” Dr. Dabhia adds. “Talking about depression can be tough but helpful.”

Talk but make sure to listen, she adds. “Accept what your teen tells you without judging or criticizing. It is important to validate their feelings.”

Is it depression or something else?

As children and adolescents mature, their behaviors may change. Peer pressures, academic pressures, physical changes can affect their behavior. This can make it difficult to determine whether they are going through a temporary phase or have depression or anxiety. However, there are warning signs for both conditions that can help parents.

“Teenagers can be moody and temperamental at times. Keep in mind, they’re going through physical changes and asking questions about who they are and what they want to do with their lives as they become more independent,” Dr. Dabhia explains.

“While occasional bad moods and acting out can be normal adolescent conduct, these types of behaviors also can indicate underlying depression or anxiety.”

What are the signs of depression in a teenager?

Anybody can develop depression at any age. With young people, it’s crucial to recognize the signs since some might not be able to express their feelings well.

“Make sure to talk to your teen frequently and offer your support,” Dr. Dabhia says. “Make it clear you are willing to offer whatever support they need.”

Signs of depression include:

  • Sudden bursts of anger coupled with irritability
  • Negative thinking
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism
  • Sulking
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • A drop in school grades, attendance or not doing homework
  • High-risk behaviors, such as using alcohol and drugs
  • A change in sleeping patterns or trouble sleeping
  • A change in eating habits, such as eating more or less than usual
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, such as sports
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, including texting and video chatting

What are symptoms of anxiety in teens?

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at times. It is a normal reaction to stress. If your teenager experiences excessive anxiety that consistently impacts their daily life and overall happiness, they may have an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms include:

  • Excessive worry most days of the week
  • Trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
  • Restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability

“Depression and anxiety often occur together, although they should be diagnosed separately and treated as two separate issues,” says Dr. Dabhia.

When to seek medical help for teen depression

If your teenager is consistently sad or worried for more than two weeks, make an appointment with their doctor or pediatrician.

The doctor will ask questions to check if everything is okay. Parents are often present during these questions. The doctor will also have a private conversation with your child. If necessary, your doctor can refer you to a specialist.

“Be ready to discuss specific information about your adolescent’s symptoms, including how long they’ve been present, how much they’re affecting your teen’s daily life and any patterns you’ve noticed,” Dr. Dabhia says.

You should also mention if any of your close family members have had a mood disorder or mental illness. Additionally, it would be helpful to discuss any significant events that have occurred within your own family.

Family changes like divorce, remarriage, new sibling, or moving can sometimes cause depression or anxiety.

Suicide prevention

Pediatricians can screen for suicide risk in addition to depression, anxiety or trouble coping with stress.

“Don’t think you can just talk your adolescent out of his or her anxiety or depression. Learn to take the stresses and worries of your child or teen seriously and never dismiss talk of suicide,” Dr. Dabhia says.

Any suicide talk should be taken seriously. Situations like this require immediate action. In such cases, call 911 or 988 for the 988 Suicide Crisis Lifeline.

While anyone can experience suicide risk, some populations have higher rates of suicide or suicide attempts than the general U.S. population, including young people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer.

The Trevor Project is an organization whose mission is to end suicide among young LGBTQ+ individuals and provides free crisis counseling services.

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