How to Help Your Depressed Teenager

Steps to Get Your Teen Help

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Depressed teens often experience significant emotional and sometimes physical pain, but may not know what to do to make it better or find the help that they need. Parents are usually in the best position to take charge in getting initial help for a depressed teen

Here are some ways to know when to seek professional help.

How Do Parents Know Their Teen Has Depression?

If you suspect that your teen is depressed, it is important to see a doctor about your concerns. Only a doctor or mental health professional can diagnosis teen depression. Unlike a stomach virus or the common cold that can be treated with a home remedy like chicken soup, teen depression needs to diagnosed and treated by a doctor, psychiatrist, or other qualified mental health professional. Depression can have a number of different causes that can affect the type of treatment that a doctor recommends.

Symptoms of Teen Depression

Depression in teens deeply affects those who suffer from it, but the symptoms are often much different than depression in adults. In order to get help, it is important to first recognize the signs of depression in teens:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Somatic/physical complaints
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Sleeping too much or not enough
  • Fatigue
  • Negative self-talk
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Declining grades
  • Talk of death or suicide

Teen depression is not uncommon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 3.2% of children between the ages of three and 17 (approximately 1.9 million) are diagnosed with depression in a given year.

The problem is that teen depression often disguises itself as normal "mood swings" due to puberty or teen angst. This means that it is often ignored until something more serious happens such as serious risk-taking behavior that leads to trouble or a suicide attempt.

What Is Causing My Teen's Depressed Moods?

Depression in teens can be caused by different factors. Some of the factors that might play a part include:

  • Trauma
  • Genetic predisposition to depression
  • Bullying
  • Social exclusion
  • Stress
  • Biochemical imbalances

The teen years are also a period of physical, emotional, and social upheaval. Just being a teenager and going through puberty can often be a cause for mood swings and depressed moods. The stress of becoming a young adult with all of its social and independent aspects can cause bouts of sadness and depression.

Because teen depression can have so many causes and because mood shifts can be so common in teens, it can make it difficult for parents to recognize the signs and for doctors to make a diagnosis. For parents, this means you should note all depression symptoms, be aware of your teen's moods, and always discuss any signs with your teen's doctor.

If you want to know what could be causing your teen's depression, you can go to the source and talk to your teen. They may be able to give you an answer—or they may not know themselves. Either way, talking to your teen will help you keep the lines of communication open with them while they are working through their depression.

When to Seek Professional Help for a Depressed Teen

Identifying depression in teens can be difficult because it doesn’t necessarily show up in all aspects of a teen's life and can be episodic, appearing to come and go. But depression in teens is often serious. It is a mistake to wait and hope depression will get better on its own because it usually doesn't.

Untreated depression can lead to other serious problems, such as substance abuse, behavior problems, and difficulty overcoming major illnesses.

One Helpful Guideline

If your teen has significant changes in mood, behavior or personality that last more than a few weeks, it's a good idea to seek professional help to try to determine the reason behind these changes. 

It is important to have your teen evaluated by a doctor in order to receive an appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Your child's doctor can also check for other medical conditions that might be contributing to your teen's symptoms. One study found that children who are diagnosed with depression are more likely to have other chronic health problems, other mental health conditions, as well as other unmet mental and medical health services needs. 

It may not be depression, but any long-term changes in your teen's functioning suggest a serious problem that needs to be identified and addressed. It’s always best to err on the side of caution when the possibility of teen depression exists, as it may continue to worsen and can even lead to suicide.

Getting Your Teen Evaluated

The first step in helping a teen with symptoms of depression is a thorough evaluation by a professional. This crucial step helps provide valuable information about whether your teen suffers from depression, the severity of the problem and what treatment options are likely to be the most effective.

Depending on the available resources and how long it takes to set up an initial appointment, you should schedule an assessment for your teen with your medical doctor or with a mental health professional who specializes in helping teenagers. Seeing your child's pediatrician may be a good first step. Your child's doctor can evaluate your child's health, make a diagnosis, recommend treatments, and refer you to another professional if necessary.

Evaluation Options for Your Teen

  • A medical doctor can order blood tests, review family history, evaluate current medications, sleep patterns, and diet in an effort to determine if there is a physical cause for the depression. 
  • An individual therapist specializing in treating teens can evaluate the symptoms based on talking to the teen and family members. This information helps point the way to make specific recommendations for next steps that are likely to be beneficial to your teen. 
  • psychological evaluation or psychological testing, completed by a psychologist over several sessions can provide extensive information about the severity and nature of the symptoms, contributing factors, and the possible presence of suicidal ideation. This option is best suited for cases where the diagnosis is unclear. 

Information revealed about your teen's symptoms in the evaluation plus the recommendations of the professional who administers it, will make it easier to determine the next steps to take.

How You Can Help

If your teen is diagnosed with depression, there are ways you can be supportive. Educate yourself about depression so you can have a better idea of what your teen is going through. Be available to listen and encourage your teen to talk to you about anything that might be bothering them. Support your teen's daily routines, such as taking medications and eating healthy, and make sure your home is a safe, comforting place.

Start getting your teen help for depression by talking to their doctor letting him know you wish to find a specialist in the mental health field. Working with a psychiatrist or a combination of a psychologist and your family doctor is the best beginning strategy for a teen suffering from depression. This type of treatment strategy will not only help your teen deal with their current problem but will also prevent the depression from getting worse and causing more problems in school, their social lives, and their development.

Some teens who are suffering from depression do not want to seek help. They may beg, get upset with you, or become violent when you suggest it. Even if your concerns are met with resistance, it is still important that you seek help for your teen.

Explain Depression to Your Teen

Comparing depression to another medical illness that your child is familiar with may allow her to understand depression as an illness, her symptoms, the importance of treatment and avoid feeling abnormal. Older children and adolescents are especially sensitive to feeling different or out of place. Talk with your child and encourage them to ask questions.

  • For Example: "Depression is a mental illness. It is like other illnesses like the flu in the way that it can make you feel tired or have a headache. It can also affect your moods and feelings. It can make you feel sad, lonely, frustrated, angry or scared."

Talk About Treatment With Your Teen

Your teenager is more likely to comply with treatment if she understands what it is for, knows what to expect and can have a say in it. Of course, it is not always practical to allow your child to plan her own treatment, but if you can allow her to even make a small decision (like setting up her next appointment), it may make a big difference in allowing her to feel in control.

  • For Example: "You will need to take medicine every day and go to therapy once a week so you feel better. You can talk privately to your therapist about how you are feeling. Your medicine may make you feel extra tired or dizzy, but it should go away soon. That is why you will see the doctor once a month. He will ask about how the medicine is making you feel and will make sure that it is helping you. "

Encourage Supportive Relationships

Depression can cause teens to withdraw from friends and family, which can lead to feelings of sadness, loneliness, and isolation. Supportive relationships are important for people of all ages, but it may be especially important for depressed children who already feel lonely or isolated. Having just one friend or supportive adult to talk to can provide a huge benefit to your child. Declare your support and availability to your child. Encourage your child to connect or re-connect with friends and to share their feelings.

  • For Example: "I am always here to talk to you about anything. Talking to your friends can help, too. Having supportive and encouraging people to lean on is important. Talking about your feelings can make a difficult time a little bit easier. Which of your friends do you think you might be able to talk to?"

Treatments for Teen Depression

Teen depression is treatable with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Your mental health professional will help you and your teen decide on an individual treatment plan. Teens who are suicidal may need to be hospitalized. 

Medications

Antidepressants can be effective in the treatment of teen depression. All antidepressants carry a black box FDA warning of an increased risk of suicidal thinking in children and young adults under the age of 25. Because of this, antidepressant use in teens should be carefully monitored by doctors and parents, particularly during the first few weeks of treatment. 

There are currently two types of antidepressants that have been approved by the FDA to treat major depressive disorder in children. Fluoxetine (Prozac) is approved to treat children over the age of eight and duloxetine (Cymbalta) is approved to treat those age 12 and older. 

Doctors and psychiatrists may also exercise their professional judgment and prescribe other types of antidepressants for off-label purposes. 

Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are two approaches that are often used to treat depression in teens. CBT focuses on addressing the relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Teen learn to identify negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive, helpful ones.

IPT is focused on social relationships and communication issues that can contribute to feelings of depression. It may involve helping teens learn to interact with others in new ways and to improve the quality of their social relationships.

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to professional treatment, there are other things that you can do to improve how your teen is feeling. Lifestyle modifications such as establishing a good sleep schedule, getting regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet can help kids feel better.

Addressing Myths

Older children may be familiar with the social stigma of mental illness or have heard others say derogatory things about the mentally ill. You may want to address this with your child so that she does not feel like she has to hide or be ashamed of her depression diagnosis.

Remind your child that people may not understand or might be misinformed, but that there is no reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed. Teens should also know that it is their choice whether or not they want to tell people about their diagnosis, but that it is not something that they need to hide.

Parents sometimes mistakenly believe that talking about suicide can plant ideas in a child. In fact, addressing the topic can help her to know what to do if she has suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Talking about suicide won't give your child ideas; it can help them recognize a problem and know when and how to ask for help.

It is important that you seek urgent medical care if your child is having suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Watch for signs of suicidal thinking and don't hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call emergency services if you believe a teen is suicidal.

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