There are several common warning signs of adolescent depression. Adolescent depression affects an estimated 13 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 across the United States, particularly affecting older adolescents and those with negative school experiences and less authoritative households.
Unlike general sadness, depressive disorders are characterized by long-lasting and persistent low mood, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, and a combination of other physical and emotional symptoms. While the factors behind depression are complex and often hereditary, the trigger for its onset can be anything from parental pressure to academic expectations, a traumatic event, a codependent condition, or age.
Warning Signs of Adolescent Depression
The pandemic has only made matters worse, affecting teens especially through the closure of schools and social spaces. Even as we move towards an eventual post-pandemic “new normal”, it’s important to take care of our mental health, and of the mental health of our children.
Recognizing adolescent depression early can help us equip our teens with the means to combat growing symptoms, reduce the onset of other mental health issues, and provide an important framework for seeking support and stability later in life.
Here are seven common warning signs of adolescent depression.
Irregular Sleeping Schedule
Some teens struggle with sleep more than others, but a common mark of depression is an inconsistent sleep schedule that often includes long periods of restlessness and insomnia, and chronic oversleeping. Teens struggling with depressive thoughts may lie awake for hours unable to fall asleep, only to struggle to get out of bed – even staying in until noon or longer on the weekends.
When observing your teen’s sleeping routines, take note of how long they tend to stay in bed after waking up. Another common hallmark of depression is that it makes even the little things (like a change of clothing or getting up out of bed) seem insurmountably difficult.
If your teen spends multiple hours on school-free days remaining in bed even after they’ve woken up, they’re not just trying to avoid their chores or laze around. They might be stuck in a deep, dark place.
Irritability and Mood Changes
Teens are known for mood shifts, and they are more likely to be irritable than the average adult. But depression-related mood changes transcend the angry teen stereotype.
If your teen has completely unprovoked and random outbursts and struggles heavily with maintaining a positive mood – to the point where their mood typically fluctuates between sad and frustrated, with few notes in between – they may be going through something difficult.
Loss of Interest in Other Hobbies
It’s perfectly normal to grow out of your hobbies as you get older, but it’s an entirely different thing to fall off most interests completely.
One of the hallmark characteristics of depression is that it is immensely tiring, to the point that it can leave you too tired and disinterested to pick up and do the things you used to love doing, from cooking to drawing, or in some cases, even playing video games or reading books.
This is especially true for social hobbies – depression can lead teens to back away from doing the things they used to love doing with others. Some teens pick up other hobbies, while some don’t, and instead spend more time isolating themselves. It’s important to remember that one of the most devastating elements of a depressive disorder is anhedonia, or the inability to feel joy.
Physical and Mental Fatigue
Teens with depression are much more tired than their peers, regardless of how well or long they slept or rested. They’re low energy, struggling to keep up with their friends, perform academic tasks, study, do their work, or even find the energy to hang out with friends.
They might keep up well enough to mask their symptoms for some time, but their behavior might still feel off, as though they’re struggling to be present and awake.
In many cases, it’s part of the mental toll that depression takes on both the mind and the body. But in other cases, severe fatigue may be a sign that a teen’s depression could be related to their thyroid function, or another physical condition, such as a chronic pain disorder.
Depression increases the body’s sensitivity to pain (making existing pain stronger) and reduces the body’s threshold for pain (making more pain noticeable).
This can lead to unexplained aches and pains tied to a teen’s mood and mental state – even without any obvious physical symptoms, a teen can experience somatic pain as a result of their depression.
Inversely, combatting depressive symptoms can have a marked improvement on a teen’s pain, to the point where antidepressants and the pain-relieving (and mood-improving) mechanisms of dopamine are important pain management tools for physical conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.
Feeling Inadequate and Mentioning Suicide
A generalized bleak outlook on life, repeatedly making statements about being or feeling useless, commenting on how no one would notice if they were gone, or even joking about, mocking, or frequently mentioning suicide are just a few of the common signs of teenage depression.
By projecting their sadness through daily conversations and through their outlook on life, teens can try to call attention to how they feel while verbalizing what depression feels like – a dark voice amplifying every negative thing while drowning out every hint of hope.
Self-Harm and Physical Neglect
Another common form of negative self-expression for teens is self-harm. Physical self-harm also becomes a short-term maladaptive coping mechanism for some teens.
Cutting, burning, or scratching themselves elicits a burst of pain followed by pain-relieving endogenous endorphins, neurotransmitters that essentially dull the pain and make us feel good for a brief period.
This can create a toxic feedback loop where a teen seeks to hurt themselves in order to experience a short burst of euphoria.
Physical neglect, on the other hand, often goes hand-in-hand with the overwhelming fatigue that follows other depressive symptoms. Teens may have a hard time convincing themselves to get a shower or a change of clothes or clean their surroundings. Doing so can, in an inverse way, positively affect their outlook and help fight symptoms of depression.
While these are some of the most common signs of teen depression, it’s important to note that no two cases are exactly alike and that there are many subtle ways in which even seemingly happy or well-adjusted teens can be suffering from dark and intrusive depressive thinking.
It’s important to pay attention and listen to your teen, follow the subtext of their behavior, and ask them how they’re doing from time to time. Getting help for your teen as early as possible will give them the best possible outlook on defeating anxiety and depressive symptoms.