Teenagers face a host of pressures, from the physical and emotional changes of puberty to wondering who they are and where they fit in. To help parents, teachers, coaches and anyone else involved with teenagers recognize the signs of depression and how to get help, we offer this excellent blog written by Mason Gomberg, MD, a pediatrician with our Westchester Health Pediatrics group. Here at Westchester Health, we see a lot of teenagers, which also means that we see our fair share of teenage depression.
The most common symptoms of depression in teens
Recognizing teen depression can be difficult because the signs aren’t always obvious but here are the most common signs you should look out for:
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Irritability, anger or hostility
- Increased drug use (illegal or legal drugs)
- Absence form school
- Frequent crying
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Loss of interest in activities
- Poor school performance
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Thoughts of death or suicide
10 ways to help a depressed teen
- Focus on listening, not lecturing. Resist the urge to criticize or pass judgment once your teenager begins to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. Simply letting your teen know that you’re there for them, completely and unconditionally, is huge.
- Be gentle but persistent. Don’t give up if they shut you out at first. Talking about their depression can be very tough for teens. Even if they want to, they may have a hard time expressing what they’re feeling. Be respectful of your child’s comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t try to talk your teen out of depression, even if his/her feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Your well-meaning attempts to explain why “things aren’t that bad” can often come across as not taking their emotions seriously. To make your teen feel understood and supported, simply acknowledging the pain and sadness they are experiencing.
- Trust your gut. If your teen claims nothing is wrong but has no explanation for what is causing the depressed behavior, you should trust your instincts. If your teen won’t open up to you, consider turning to a trusted third party: a school counselor, favorite teacher or coach, or mental health professional. The important thing is for them to start talking to someone.
- Encourage social connection. Depressed teens tend to withdraw from their friends and the activities they used to enjoy. However, isolation only makes depression worse, so do what you can to help your teen connect to others. Encourage him/her to go out with friends or invite friends over. Participate in activities that involve other families and give your child an opportunity to meet and connect with other kids. Suggest activities—such as sports, after-school clubs, or an art, dance, or music class—that take advantage of your teen’s interests and talents.
- Set aside time each day to talk. The simple act of connecting face to face where you’re focused totally on your teen (no distractions or multi-tasking) can play a big role in reducing his/her depression.
- Promote volunteerism. Doing things for others is a powerful antidepressant and self-esteem booster. Help your teen find a cause they’re interested in and that gives them a sense of purpose. If you volunteer with them, it can also be a good bonding experience.
- Make physical health a priority. Physical and mental health are definitely connected. In our experience as pediatricians, we’ve seen that depression is exacerbated by inactivity, inadequate sleep and poor nutrition. As a parent, you can combat these behaviors by establishing a healthy, supportive home environment.
- Set limits on screen time. Teens often go online to escape their problems, but excessive computer use only increases their isolation, making them more depressed. When screen time increases, physical activity and face time with friends goes down. Both are a recipe for worsening the symptoms of depression.
- Encourage plenty of sleep. Teens need more sleep than adults to function optimally—up to 9-10 hours per night. Make sure your teen isn’t staying up until all hours at the expense of much-need, mood-supporting rest.
Don’t ignore the problem
Depression is very damaging when left untreated, and waiting and hoping that the symptoms will go away often just makes the situation worse. If you suspect that your child is depressed, voice your concerns in a loving, non-judgmental way. Let your teen know the specific signs of depression you’ve noticed and why they worry you. Then ask your child to share what he or she is going through—and be willing to truly listen. Refrain from asking a lot of questions but make it clear that you’re ready and willing to provide whatever support he/she needs.
Suicide and teens
Seriously depressed teens often think about, speak of, or make “attention-getting” attempts at suicide. However, since an alarming and increasing number of teenage suicide attempts are successful, suicidal thoughts, behavior or comments should always be taken very seriously.
For the overwhelming majority of suicidal teens, depression or another psychological disorder plays a primary role. In depressed teens who also abuse alcohol or drugs, the risk of suicide is even greater. Because of the very real danger of suicide, teenagers who are depressed should be watched closely for any signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Suicide warning signs to watch for
- Talking or joking about committing suicide.
- Saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever” “There’s no way out,” or “I just want the pain to stop.”
- Speaking positively about death or romanticizing dying.
- Writing stories and poems about death, dying or suicide.
- Engaging in reckless behavior or having accidents resulting in injury.
- Giving away prized possessions.
- Saying goodbye to friends, family and pets as if for the last time.
- Seeking out weapons, pills or other suicide facilitators.
How to get help for a suicidal teen
- If you suspect that your teenager (or someone you know) is suicidal, do not delay—TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION. For 24-hour suicide prevention and support in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
- To find a suicide helpline outside the U.S., visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention website or Suicide.org.
- To learn more about suicide risk factors, warning signs, and what to do in a crisis, read this article on Suicide Prevention by HelpGuide.org.
Valuable resources to have
- Teenager’s Guide to Depression
- How to Help Someone with Depression
- Depression Treatment
- About Teen Suicide
- Teen Suicide: What Parents Need to Know
- Depression and Violence in Teens
- Treatment of Children with Mental Illness
- Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry)
- Antidepressant Medications for Children and Adolescents: Information for Parents and Caregivers
If you think your child might be suffering from depression, please come see us.
If your teenager is showing signs of depression, please come in to talk to one of our Westchester Health to come in and pediatricians. We will meet with you and your child and perform screening tests for signs of depression. We’ll then evaluate his/her condition, and together, try to determine the cause and severity of the problem. If we feel it is needed, we will refer your child to a mental health specialist. Rest assured, we will do everything we can to help your child become healthy and happy, physically and emotionally.
To read Dr. Gomberg’s blog in full, click here.