Depression in Teenagers

Hormones rage, the physical body grows at a rapid rate, peer pressure weighs heavy and moodiness is common. Teens crave autonomy but are not ready for self sufficiency. They are tempted to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Many do. Many feel unrealistic expectations to excel in academics or sports. They are at a life juncture requiring choices that will affect the remainder of their life. Ask a teen and they will most likely tell you that their behavioral abnormalities are not really abnormal. They are simply coping. But when does confusion and sadness turn from normal teen coping to dysfunction? When does it turn to depression? And what strategies and interventions may be used to guide a teen out of depression back on a path towards normal function and happiness?

Research has shown that up to one in five teenagers experience clinical depression, including bipolar disorder (a shift from euphoria to depression). Sometimes diagnosis is difficult because teens lack the communication skills to express their suffering. Plus parents often expect their teens to exhibit some degree of unstable behavior as a “growth stage”. However, if dysfunctional behavior exceeds two weeks, help may be needed.

Signs that a teen may be suffering from depression include poor performance at school or dropping out of extracurricular activities, sensitivity to criticism especially from authority figures, and a sense of hopelessness and isolation from friends and family members. Sadness, withdrawal and low self esteem are one set of emotions exhibited while anger, rage and agitation are the opposite set of emotions. Poor sleeping and eating habits with or without abuse of drugs and alcohol are two other signs. Risk taking behavior including sexual promiscuity may also be a sign of depression.

For 10 to 24 year old people, suicide is the second leading cause of death. 90% of teens who commit suicide are diagnosed with a mental health disease including depression. Most teen suicides are not planned for a long time in advance. Instead the act occurs after an event that produces a sense of failure and hopelessness. In the United States alone daily suicide attempts by young people (grades 7 to 12) are 5,240. 80% of these young people have given overt signals of their despair but signs went unnoticed. Parents can intervene and hopefully stop a suicide attempt by being educated to the risk and helping school, community organizations including churches to increase awareness.

Parents are the best line of defense for teens suffering from depression. Parents should closely observe their children and be attuned to any sudden behavioral changes. Further they should be willing to communicate honestly with the child or friends of the child. Parents should strongly consider the help of a trained professional therapist. The therapist may recommend psychotherapy where the young person has an opportunity to explore and understand feelings at the root of their troubles. The therapist may also teach the teen coping skills.

Alternatively the therapist may suggest cognitive-behavioral therapy and help the teen restructure their thought patterns to eliminate negative self-defeating thinking and behaving. Another approach is interpersonal therapy whereby the therapist coaches the teen in developing healthy relations with friends and family members. Lastly, medication may be recommended to relieve the symptoms of depression. A qualified therapist can develop a set of tools to help a teen get on the right path to normal functioning and a happy life.

Carolyn Ehrlich LCSW, CGP specializes in Relationship Counseling NYC