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Teen Depression: Identifying The Causes, Symptoms, And Treatments

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We are learning how misunderstood adult clinical depression is in adults. Teen depression is even more misconstrued. More often than not, it is mistaken for hormonal changes. We attribute it to “teen angst”. When we ignore the signs, teen depression can often lead to substance abuse and other dangerous behaviors. Rather than ignoring it, we should learn more about mental health in young adults.

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What is Teen Depression?

Teen depression is a serious mental health disorder that can have detrimental effects on their brains and lives. It often results in a drastic change in how they think and perpetuates sadness in every aspect of their life. These kids are dealing with peer pressure and academic expectations. A teen’s life is filled with this need to figure out who they are and what their place is in the world.

behavioral and emotional changes

Teen Depression Symptoms And Causes

Mental health in teens is an important mood disorder to learn and understand. Let’s take a moment to explore the symptoms of teen depression and what causes it.

Emotional Changes

Changes to their emotions can make them appear to be a completely different person. It isn’t that they are a different person, they are expressing while processing their own emotions and thoughts. Here is a list of what can happen with major depressive disorder in a teenager.

  • Long bouts of sadness often include bouts of spontaneous crying.
  • Frequent thoughts and comments about death, dying, and suicide.
  • Anger or frustration over trivial matters that cause outbursts.
  • Believes that life, in general, is awful, hopeless, and pointless.
  • Describes feeling empty or hopeless.
  • Seems annoyed a lot or irritated at trivial things.
  • Has trouble making decisions, focusing, or thinking.
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or socializing with friends.
  • Extremely sensitive to rejection and needs a lot of reassurance.
  • Major conflicts with family and friends.
  • Extreme levels of negative self-talk and self-blame.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Feels guilty or worthless.

Behavioral Changes

Behavioral changes with teenage depression are often jarring and frustrating and a key sign of mental health issues.

  • Loss of energy and always seems tired.
  • Sleeps too much or suffers insomnia.
  • Risky behavior
  • Changes in appetite.
  • Stops grooming themselves.
  • Social isolation.
  • Abuses alcohol or other substances.
  • Self-harm (cutting, tattooing, burning).
  • Makes a suicide plan or attempts suicide.
  • Restlessness and agitation – unable to sit still, hand-wringing, pacing.

The hard part is, some of these things are normal in a teen. If you notice an extreme change in your child with more than one or two of these symptoms, it won’t hurt to talk to a mental health professional.

teen depression causes

What Causes Adolescent Depression?

 While we chalk up a lot of teen depression to hormones, we also don’t expect our teens to experience major depression when they are young. There is an assumption that mental health issues are an adult problem and these teens are looking for attention. That could not be farther from the truth.

Chemistry Of The Brain

Believe it or not, the neurotransmitters in their brain is often altered in such a way that it creates a new and unhealthy neural pathway. These changes affect teen mental health in a disastrous way. Sometimes a child is born with it and other times, it is a result of an external event.

Traumatic Events

Traumatic events are the most common factor for mental disorders in teens and adults. Children suffering from emotional or physical abuse are likely to have alterations made to the brain. A loss of a friend or parent is another common cause of teen depression. What is so difficult about traumatic events is the response to self-medicate to “feel better”. Drug and alcohol abuse is the number one method for a teen to self-medicate.

Other Family Member With Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues in other family members often contribute to teen depression. Genetically speaking, more teens are predisposed to neurological differences that make them prone to major depression and other mental disorders.

At the same time, a child who is not genetically inherited will often develop depression symptoms due to life with a mentally ill parent or relative. If the parent or relative is untreated by a mental health professional, the risk is even higher.

Negative Thought Patterns Taught To Them

Many of us have been taught some unhealthy negative thoughts that have been passed down through the generations. We are steadily working to break those down and reverse how we think for the sake of our mental health.

Teen depression thrives on negative thought patterns and reversing them becomes a vital step to healthier teens. This comes in the forms of referring to themselves as “idiots” or other extreme self-criticisms. This kind of talk breaks down the brain and trains us to be unhappy and contributes to low self-esteem.

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Can Depression In Young Adults Go Unrecognized?

With adolescent depression often attributed to other issues, it is easy for the mental health disorder to go unnoticed. This is due to a lack of education about the signs and symptoms. In years past, discussing mental health issues was considered in bad taste and there has been lots of shame around needing help. Fortunately, we are battling those ideas by openly talking about the dangers of depression and suicidal thinking.

People With Depression May Not Realize They Are Depressed

Shame around mental health is so rampant that many of us will dismiss our symptoms as something else. And if we do this to ourselves, we are definitely doing it to a depressed teenager somewhere. Brene Brown talks at length about shame and vulnerability. One of our favorite quotes is:

What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.

We need to keep listening to the education and reaching out to our depressed teens so that we support them throughout their lives.

Depression Can Be Mistaken For “Hormones” and “Bad Attitudes”

Many of us grew up hearing about “teen angst” and hormonal fluctuations. While it is true that teens experience changes in their hormones, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t depressed. If you don’t know how to express how you feel inside, you will act out. It isn’t a bad attitude either, another famous excuse for symptoms of depression. When dealing with a depressed teen, or any teen for that matter, we have to be patient and actively listen to what is going on within their mind. They have to know they can trust us enough to listen too.

Depressed People Can Have Co-Occurring Disorders

Whether depression comes first or not, there are often co-occurring disorders that plague teens. Many will self-medicate through alcohol and substance abuse. Others will have an anxiety disorder that may lead them to cut themselves. Others will have altered eating habits that can lead to an eating disorder. Some will learn they have bipolar disorder and all sorts of mental health problems. Catching depression early can help eliminate some of these problems, or discover and address them.

How Can Parents Recognize Depression In Their Teens?

Parents watch their kids closely and worry about them a lot, especially with teens. It’s a part of the job that comes with parenting. Recognizing depression can be hard because sadness is a normal emotion to experience. You can track the behavior with your teen by using our list above of teen depression signs. Check in with the school counselor to see if there have been any concerns on their end. If you are suspicious, speak with a mental health specialist about your concerns to see if they have any concerns.

It is also important to check in with your teen. Discussing concerns is scary, especially if you have not experienced this with your own parents. Here are ways you can begin the conversations.

Explain Depression to Your Teen

Explaining what depression and depressive disorders are is an important one when talking with your child. Even if they are not depressed, chances are they know someone who is. If you have a family history of mental health disorders, it can be brought up and discussed so that they can feel less alone about their situation.

Talk About Treatment With Your Teen

Getting a teen to consent to treatment can feel like pulling teeth. This is why explaining to them what happens and what their role is can help. From the psychological evaluation to cognitive behavioral therapy to talk therapy, and everything in between prepares them and makes it less scary. Giving them room to make their own decisions about their therapy also helps them feel like they are helping themselves, rather than “lazy” and all other things attributed to depression.

Encourage Supportive Relationships

It will help if you learn about healthy relationships in family therapy. By examining your own thought processes and habits, you can create an environment that is supportive for your family. This helps your teen learn what a healthy and supportive relationship looks like. Allow them to speak to you freely regarding their friendships. If you hear of any red flags, ask if you can offer some advice or insight. Sometimes they just need to unload their own thoughts and process things to arrive at the same conclusion. Other times they need to be pointed in the right direction.

What Helps Teens Improve Their Mental Health?

The biggest help to teens improving their mental health is the support of a therapist and your support. Depression in teens who have family support is more likely to recover than those without. But there are other steps you can take to further nurture their mental health.

Encourage Social Activities

Social connection is what makes human beings happy. We are designed to enjoy each other’s company. Without it, we are left feeling lonely and harbor resentments for lacking connection. It will also lead to suicidal thoughts. Rather than allowing your teen to isolate, encourage being social. Engaging with friends in fun and healthy activities will allow them to experience dopamine and combat depression.

Make Physical Health A Priority

When anyone suffers from depression, their physical health also suffers. If your teen’s appetite is struggling, encourage healthy foods that will fight the effects. Participating in a sport or rigorous activity will also help with activating serotonin and dopamine. Be sure that you and the rest of the family also engage in these priorities. They need to see others doing it for themselves as well. Just be mindful that it’s a balancing act. Don’t take away fried foods and chocolate cake entirely. You want to teach them how to have those things in moderation.

Know when to seek professional help

If you try to talk with your child and implement healthy options for them and things are not getting better, adolescent psychiatry is a good stepping stone for you to reach out to. Take notes of the warning signs and how long things have been going on. Then let the health care provider know of your concerns and what steps should be taken next.