The Dangers of Untreated Depression in Teens

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

When depression in teens is left untreated, the consequences can be severe, and in some cases, deadly. Like other illnesses, depression continues to get worse when untreated.

Problems That Depressed Teenagers May Face

Teens who have depression are at high risk to develop many serious problems as they struggle to cope with the emotional pain they are feeling. Although the behaviors described below are not specific to depression, they may raise some suspicion for the presence of depression or other mood disorders.

Behavior Problems at Home

Teens may begin to withdraw from family members for a number of reasons. But depression can lead to feelings of anger and irritability, which can result in an ongoing negative attitude or even defiance. Symptoms of depression can also cause people to feel that they are unlovable or unwanted.

Problems Competing in Sports

Fatigue and lack of energy are common symptoms of depression. Because of low energy levels, teens may find it more difficult to compete in sports or physical education courses.

Other common symptoms such as irritability, lack of confidence, and difficulties getting along with peers can make taking part in group sports a challenge.

Declining School Performance

Depression can make it hard for teenagers to function fully in academic settings. Symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, lack of interest, fatigue, mood swings, and worthlessness can impair school performance.

Dropping grades are sometimes a sign that a teen may be struggling with symptoms of depression.

Social Issues

Depression can make it difficult to relate to others. People often feel worthless or unworthy of attention from other people. People who are depressed also tend to withdraw socially, which can further contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Substance Use

People sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol in an effort to self-medicate, self-treat sleeping difficulties, cope with suicidal thoughts. Feelings of depression may lead teens to try drugs or alcohol, and continued use may contribute to continued feelings of depression.

One study found that symptoms of depression were linked to the initiation of drug use by teens.

Risky Behavior

Depression may also increase risky behaviors in teens. Such actions might include things like driving carelessly, having unprotected sex, or involvement in illegal activities. The consequences of these actions can often be devastating as well as life-altering.

Self-Harm Behaviors

Self-injury behaviors involve hurting oneself deliberately in an attempt to try to express or control inner pain. These actions can include cutting, burning the skin, headbanging, self-hitting, hair pulling, and skin picking. Signs of self-harm can include always wearing long-sleeves, unexplained cuts or bruises, impulsive or risky behaviors, and repeatedly rubbing areas of the body.

Violence Towards Others

Self-loathing can develop into directing anger and rage onto others. This acting out behavior will often have consequences that lead the teen to more depressive episodes. Aggression, anger, and irritability can cause friends and family to withdraw, leaving the teen even more isolated and lonely.

Continued Depression

One serious consequence associated with untreated depression in teens is the continuation or worsening of depression symptoms. As teens get older, they may experience recurring episodes of depression or their depressive symptoms may become more severe.

The longer this continues, the more of an impact it will have on a teen's ability to function. They may become increasingly isolated from friends and family, grades may suffer, and they may find it difficult to complete normal daily tasks.

Untreated depression can also disrupt sleep patterns. Research has shown that sleep problems can both contribute to the onset of depression and that depression then exacerbates sleep disturbances.

Suicide Threats or Attempts

Depressed teens have a high rate of suicide due to experiencing significant emotional pain that they want to stop. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens in the U.S.

Depression is a major risk factor for teen suicide. Other risk factors include family history, trauma, abuse, life stress, eating disorders, bullying, and drug or alcohol misuse.

Untreated depression can affect teens in devastating ways which makes it critically important to get help for a teen who is showing signs of this condition.

Ways Parents Can Help

Because of the potential consequences of untreated depression in teens, it's critical for parents to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms, which can be different from depression in adults. While teens can be moody in general, parents should be alert to signs that their child is experiencing symptoms of depression. Depression treatments are effective and can significantly improve your child's quality of life.

Know the Signs

Common symptoms of depression in teens include:

  • Sadness
  • Mood swings
  • Frequent bouts of crying
  • Hopelessness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Talking about death or suicide

Get Help

If you suspect that your teen is depressed or experiencing symptoms of depression, the first thing you should do is talk to your child's pediatrician. A doctor can evaluate your child and check for any underlying medical causes that may be contributing to symptoms.

Your child's pediatrician can also make recommendations for treatment, including prescribing antidepressant medications or referring you to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional for further treatment.

Treatment options often depend on the nature and severity of your teen's symptoms. Milder symptoms may respond well to active support and lifestyle modifications. More moderate to severe cases may require psychotherapy, medication, or both.

Be Supportive

Parents should always take symptoms of teen depression seriously. Talk to your child, listen to what they have to say, and take their feelings seriously. Even if you don't understand what they are going through, never be dismissive of their emotions or experiences. By being a source of understanding and support, your child may be more willing to open up to you and accept help.

If you think that your child may be having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pang, RD, Farrahi, L, Glazier, S, Sussman, S, and Leventhal, AM. Depressive symptoms, negative urgency and substance use initiation in adolescentsDrug Alcohol Depend. 2014;144:225-230. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.09.771

  2. Mason, EC and Harvey, AG. Insomnia before and after treatment for anxiety and depression. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2014;168:415-421. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.07.020

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leading causes of death reports.

By Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
Kathyrn Rudlin, LCSW, a writer and therapist in California specializes in counseling and education for teenagers with mothers who are emotionally disconnected.