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Mood disorders like depression have become an increasingly prevalent issue for young teens. Behavioral researchers and psychologists have determined dozens of potential factors to help explain why depression is becoming more common, from screen time and its impact on sleep to the changes in social behavior brought on by new technologies, as well as socioeconomic context, academic pressure, awareness, better screening tools, and even genes. 

Surveys estimate that about one in ten teens struggles with severe long-term depression, and every fifth teen has seriously considered suicide.  

Generating awareness and a better understanding of mood disorders like depression helps parents and teachers better screen for the early warning signs, identify teens that need help, and prevent tragedies. But it’s not just about sheer numbers and statistical risks. It’s about how teens feel – and making sure they’re heard and understood. 

Take the opportunity this month, during Depression Awareness Month, to talk to your teen about the signs and symptoms of teen depression, and what they should know about getting help – whether for someone they know, or even for themselves. 

Approaches to Initiating Conversations

It isn’t easy to talk about depression, or any mental health condition. Mental health issues are often still poorly understood and heavily stigmatized. 

Whereas we see a common cold or a broken bone as par for the course in life – an unfortunate thing that happens – we’re more likely to see mental health issues as a personal failing, especially in ourselves. It’s important to confront that line of thinking

If you want to talk to your teen about depression – whether in general, or because you want to know if they’re feeling alright – then pick the right time and place

When your teen is open to talking, or talking about their day, segue into mentioning your concern about mental health issues or mental health resources at school, perhaps because you’ve recently read about Depression Awareness Month, and it crossed your mind. 

Or take the opportunity on a weekend, while spending time together as a family, to use the quiet time between activities to ask your teen how they’re doing – in earnest – and just listen

If your teen has been having a hard time recently, always focus on compassion before rationality. You may be in a completely different headspace, and while the solution to your teen’s problems might seem straightforward, there are reasons that they’re having a hard time regardless. Avoid using words or phrases like “just” or “I would” or “you should”. Instead, keep asking questions. Ask your teen what they think they should do next. 

If your teen admits that they’ve been having an especially hard time recently – or may even be depressed – comfort them. Depression isn’t a personal failing, and it isn’t permanent. Tell them that they aren’t alone, and that, sometimes, talking about these feelings can help fight them. 

Recognizing Signs of Teen Depression

Depression is a kind of mood disorder, one characterized by low mood over longer periods. Low mood can include unprompted feelings of loneliness, emptiness, hopelessness, and worthlessness, with no apparent trigger or reason. Sometimes, depressive episodes can be kicked off by grief or sadness – but other times, they come out of nowhere. 

Recognizing depression in a teen is as much about keeping an eye out for changes in how they talk and act, as well as regularly checking in with your teen to see how they feel. Watch out for: 

  • Sudden behavioral changes.
    • No longer hanging out with friends/change in friend group. 
    • Sudden loss of interest in hobbies. 
    • Struggles to have fun.
    • Sudden drop in appetite. 
    • Increased appetite, but mostly binges. 
    • Oversleeping or being unable to fall asleep at night.  
  • Changes in a teen’s mood and words. 
    • Frequently talking about death or making light of death and suicide. 
    • Often takes the blame, sees self as the problem. 
    • Often talks about how things might be easier without themselves, or if they left. 
    • Sudden changes in how they communicate, shutting down/talking less. 
    • Random bursts of irritability.
  • Unforeseen or unexplained physical and cognitive symptoms. 
    • Random stomach aches with no other cause. 
    • Feeling constantly lethargic, despite oversleeping or napping. 
    • Unable to perform physically, whether at work or sports. 
    • Struggling to think and focus, lapses in memory, can’t listen well, dropped grades.   

Screening for depression usually involves asking a teen a few questions to determine if they’re potentially depressed. 

However, a doctor must make a diagnosis for depression. Sometimes, the symptoms of depression can overlap with other problems. Sometimes, they’re pointing towards a different condition. There are strict criteria for various kinds of depression – the most common kind is major depressive disorder, but teens can also be affected by bipolar disorder, dysthymia, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and other mood disorders. 

Depression is a condition that often invites co-occurring disorders. This means that teens who are depressed have a much higher likelihood of also struggling with other mental health conditions, either before or after the onset of their depressive symptoms. 

Strategies for Supporting Your Teen

A parent’s support is incredibly powerful in the fight against depression. Being there for your teen through thick and thin can make a huge difference, but knowing how to support them is important. 

First and foremost, talk to a professional together. Encourage your teen to talk to a therapist and go to their sessions together. 

Talk to the therapist about family therapy – many therapists like to work with clients and their families to better understand the at-home dynamic, and address ways in which family members can improve their well-being together. 

When at home, take your teen’s needs into consideration while taking care of yourself. Encourage good mental and physical self-care through better habits of your own. Teens remain susceptible to their parents’ behaviors and convictions – use that influence positively. 

Remember to cut them some slack. Depression is hard because it’s an insidious and invisible opponent. A depressed teen will think slower, remember things later, and become overly self-critical when making a mistake – which invites a vicious cycle. Give your teen breathers, work with them to help support them through tough times or academic pressures or encourage them to take a step back and take more frequent breaks. 

We at Visions provide professional mental health treatments for teens struggling with depression and other mental health issues, through our designated residential treatment programs. Give us a call today to find out more about our programs, and how they might help your teen. 

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