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Do you know how to help a teen with depression? If your child or a close friend of yours is struggling with what seems like an episode of depression, then it’s important to encourage them to seek professional help with you.

Depression is often more than a temporary feeling. A depressive episode is marked by a consistently low feeling. A depressed teen might still respond to a joke with a smile or be capable of a laugh, but their “neutral” state has become one of low mood, low self-esteem, and recurring negative thoughts.

Depressive episodes aren’t something a person can snap out of. It’s not like simply feeling blue or even conventional grief. Depression is a mood disorder, meaning it is an illness. However, it is also treatable as an illness.

Identifying Teen Depression

There are many different forms of depression. Treatment for a depressive disorder can depend on what symptoms your teen may be struggling with. Co-occurring conditions are also an important factor.

Teens who are depressed are much more likely to be struggling with anxiety as well or with a drug use problem. These can complicate both diagnosis and treatment.

Getting a definitive diagnosis is important. Only a mental health professional can make such a diagnosis.

However, there are many signs of depression that parents and friends can use to infer whether their loved one might be suffering from a depressive disorder or a normal period of sadness. Here are a few signs that might indicate that your teen is struggling with depression:

  • Frequently talking about suicide and death.
  • Constantly feeling tired despite getting enough sleep or oversleeping.
  • Struggling to focus, often losing concentration, poor grades.
  • Sudden loss or sudden gain in appetite.
  • Unexplained aches and pains, especially stomachaches and headaches.

Frequently crying, sometimes without knowing why. 

  • Having no explanation for their sadness.
  • Loss of interest in old hobbies and enjoyable activities.
  • Feeling worthless.

Among depressive disorders, the most common is major depressive disorder. This is also known as clinical depression. However, depression can take on many forms. One type of depression occurs mainly during winter. Another type is tied to the menstrual cycle, causing suicidality and low mood during the luteal phase (between ovulation and the first day of the period). Some people struggle with mild depressive symptoms, but for years and decades, rather than intense, shorter episodes. Some people experience depressive symptoms for months before experiencing feelings of mania and hyperactivity.

It isn’t clear how or why depression occurs. Here’s what we do know:

  • Depression is hereditary, meaning that people with a family history of depression are also at greater risk for developing it.
  • Sometimes, depression is heavily tied to the brain – some people are wired differently and may have trouble maintaining a neutral mood.
  • In other cases, it may be linked to endocrinology, hormone production, and the adrenal glands.
  • Traumatic experiences and chronic stress can also trigger depression in people who might otherwise not have experienced depressive episodes.
  • Depression can be heavily exacerbated by a number of biological, psychological, and social factors. Grief, lack of sleep, poor diet, chronic pain, and substance use can compound and worsen depressive episodes.

Getting Professional Help

An estimated 8 percent of teens struggle with a depressive disorder, and by the time they turn 21, up to 15 percent of people have had at least one episode of a mood disorder. Getting professional help for this condition is crucial. Depression is highly treatable through a combination of talk therapy and medication.

However, only about 40 percent of teens who need treatment are getting help. The other 60 percent are not receiving treatment. Two-thirds of teens who do get help aren’t getting consistent treatment. COVID has only further complicated both access and availability of mental healthcare resources and access to treatment, as well as leading to a significant increase in depression rates among teens.

How to Help a Teen with Depression

We know depression is treatable. However, it can be an uphill battle to get teens the treatments they need. That is where friends and family come in.

1. Support Systems

Therapists and mental health professionals play crucial roles in treating patients with mental health issues, including millions of teens. But the most critical role is played by the parents, family, and friends of those in need.

In addition to treatment, teens with depression need a reliable support system that they can turn to for help. A support system can help a teen seek access to therapy and medication, combat loneliness, give them emotional or physical support, and more.

2. Family Therapy

In addition to offering support, a patient’s family can also play an important role in their therapy via family therapy.

In contrast to one-on-one talk therapy, family therapy sessions are aimed at addressing the family or household dynamic, finding ways to help promote mental health at home, and addressing issues such as the quality of the relationships between parents and their children or between siblings.

Teens struggling with depression may not feel comfortable confronting their family members about how they feel overwhelmed at home or overcome by expectations. Family therapy creates a framework to speak these issues out and address them in a safe space, and work through them properly.

3. Sleep and Diet

Poor sleep and poor diet are not just signs of depression. They can also significantly contribute to the severity and frequency of depressive episodes. Like an ouroboros, sleep and diet are two lifestyle factors that create a self-destructive cycle for many people with depression.

However, most teens live with family. You can help your teen by modeling healthier sleeping habits and dietary choices, eating healthier as a family, and encouraging your teen to adopt better sleep hygiene. Help them prepare their room at night (cool and dark), reduce screentime before bed, pick out soothing music together, and wake them up at a consistent time each day.

4. Exercising Together

Physical movement can do a lot to help reduce depression, provided it is consistent physical movement.

It can be challenging for teens with depression to motivate themselves, as their physical and emotional fatigue means that some days, it’s hard to see a reason for getting out of bed, let alone putting on clothes, getting a shower, or going for a jog.

Bring your teen along on walks and workouts to help them get a little bit of movement in a few times a week. Don’t overwhelm them with a strict exercise regime or an hour of exercise a day. Take it slow and pick something you can all have fun with.

Treating Depression Takes Time

Depression takes patience. It isn’t something that can be addressed in a few short sessions or a few weeks of medication. Sometimes, results are lost, and symptoms return. And other times, the first treatment tried may not be the most effective.

If you have concerns about your teen’s mental health, talk to them about speaking to a professional together. If your teen has talked about suicide or discusses suicide frequently, get help immediately.