Teenage Depression: How to Get Help for Your Child

How to Help a Depressed Teenager

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 3.2% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 (approximately 1.9 million) are diagnosed with depression in a given year. Read on to learn when and how to seek professional help, talk with your teen about depression, and support them through their experience.

Overview

Depressed teens experience significant emotional and sometimes physical pain, but they may not know how to make it better or find the help they need. Only a doctor or mental health professional can diagnose teen depression, but parents are usually in the best position to begin the process. The clinician will consider all aspects of your teen's depression to develop a treatment plan.

Symptoms of Teen Depression

The signs and symptoms of depression in teens are often different than in adults. Because teen depression often disguises itself as the normal mood swings of puberty or teen angst, it's often ignored until something serious happens, such as a suicide attempt or risk-taking behavior. Here's what to look for if you suspect your teen has depression:

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

Causes

Some of the factors that can play a role in the development of depression in teens include:

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

The teen years are also a period of physical, emotional, and social upheaval. This alone can cause mood swings and depressed moods. The stress of becoming a young adult 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, parents can have difficulty differentiating between the two. Consult a professional as soon as possible if you suspect depression in your teen.

For parents, this means you should note all depression signs, be aware of your teen's moods, and discuss your suspicions with your teen's doctor.

Talk to your teen to learn what could be contributing to their depression. 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 while they are working through their depression.

When to Seek Help

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

Untreated depression can lead to other serious problems, such as substance use, behavior problems, and medical issues. It is important to have your teen evaluated by a doctor to receive an appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

If you've noticed significant changes in mood, behavior, or personality in your teen that last more than a few weeks, seek professional help to explore the reasons behind these changes. 

Your child's doctor can check for other medical conditions that might be contributing to your teen's symptoms, too. Children who are diagnosed with depression tend to have other chronic health problems and mental health conditions, as well as other unmet mental and medical services needs.

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

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Getting Your Teen Evaluated

A thorough evaluation by a professional is required to determine if your teen has depression, assess the severity of the problem, and weigh the treatment options.

Schedule an assessment for your teen with a medical doctor or mental health professional who specializes in helping teenagers. Seeing your child's pediatrician can be a good first step.

What Evaluation Might Look Like

Your child's doctor can evaluate your child's health, make a diagnosis, recommend treatments, and refer you to another professional, if necessary.

  • A medical doctor can order blood tests, review family history, and evaluate current medications, sleep patterns, and diet to determine if there is a physical cause for the depression. 
  • psychological evaluation or testing 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 in which the diagnosis is unclear. 

A therapist who specializes in treating teens will evaluate the symptoms based on talks with the teen and family members. They'll then come up with specific recommendations that are the most likely to help your teen.

The process can take time. Help your teen understand that determining effective therapies and medications can be a trial-and-error process, and it might take several tries to get the treatment plan right. Also, many antidepressants take weeks to months to reach full effect.

How to Help a Teen With Depression

People who are experiencing depression often do not want to seek help.; they might beg, get upset with you, or become violent when you suggest it. Even if your concerns are met with such resistance, seeking help is crucial. Working with a mental health professional and your family doctor is the best beginning strategy for a teen suffering from depression.

Support your teen's daily routines, such as taking medications and eating well. Encourage healthy self-help strategies, and make sure your home is a safe, comforting place.

If your teen is diagnosed with depression, educate yourself about this condition so you can understand what your teen is going through. Be available to listen, and encourage your teen to talk about anything that's bothering them.

Explain Depression to Your Teen

Comparing depression to a physical malady such as diabetes can help your teen frame depression as an illness, understand their symptoms, grasp the importance of treatment, and help them not to feel alone or 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's like the flu and other illnesses in 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 they have a say in treatment decisions, understand what treatment is for, and know what to expect. Of course, allowing your child to plan their own treatment isn't always practical, but letting them make a small decision (like setting up the next appointment) can help them feel a little more in control.

For example: "You need to take your 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 tired or dizzy, but it should go away soon. That is why you'll see the doctor once a month. They 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 increase feelings of sadness, loneliness, and isolation. Supportive relationships are essential for people of all ages but are especially important for depressed children who already feel lonely or isolated.

Having just one friend or supportive adult to talk to can be of significant benefit to your child. Declare your support and availability, and encourage your child to connect or re-connect with friends and 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?"

Address Myths

Older children might be familiar with the social stigma of mental illness or have heard others say derogatory things about people will mental illness. Consider addressing this with your child so that they do not feel like they must hide or be ashamed of their depression diagnosis.

Remind your child that people might not understand or might be misinformed, but that is no reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed. Teens should also know that telling people about their diagnosis is up to them, but it is not something they need to hide.

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 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. 

Although only a few antidepressants have a formal FDA indication for the pediatric population, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly used. 

Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are two approaches often used to treat depression in teens. CBT focuses on the relationships among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Teens 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 can help teens learn to interact with others in new ways and improve the quality of their social relationships.

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to professional treatment, lifestyle modifications such as a healthy sleep schedule, regular exercise, and a nutritious diet can help kids feel better.

Teen Suicide Risk

Parents sometimes mistakenly believe that talking about suicide can plant the idea in their child's mind. However, addressing the topic can help your child know what to do if they have 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.

Seek immediate medical care if your child is having suicidal thoughts or behaviors, even if you're not sure. It's far better to err on the side of caution. Watch for signs of suicidal thinking and don't hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or local emergency services if you believe your teen is suicidal.

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