The teen years are known for mood swings and irrational behavior – but there’s a clear line between not thinking straight and struggling to think. With that said, today we’ll take a closer look at the effects of depression in teens, how to recognize the signs, and where to get help.
Adolescence and Mental Health
Adolescence is hard enough as it is for most kids, but some – as many as ten percent – are fighting more than just the effects of puberty. Conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even drug use disorder often begin in the early to late teens and continue to affect millions of people throughout adulthood.
Among children and young teens, anxiety, ADHD, and depression constitute the three most diagnosed mental health issues, at rates ranging between ten and four percent. Many teens diagnosed with one disorder also suffer from symptoms of another. Learning to recognize the signs of depression in teens can help you get them the professional guidance they need and access to the treatment they deserve.
Depression or Sadness?
Whenever the topic of depression and its increasing rates becomes a mainstream discussion, there are concerns around the risk of pathologizing sadness. But recognizing depression does not mean ruling out the importance and significance of healthy human emotions, including negative ones. Depression is not extreme sadness or extreme grief.
Depression is characterized mainly by the absence of joy. It is anhedonia, loss of pleasure, and the inability to reach a neutral baseline or feel happy. Even if kids can laugh at a joke or crack a smile, if they are struggling with depression, those fleeting moments do nothing to bring them back from what feels like a constant brink.
Our understanding of depression, as well as other common mood disorders, has allowed us to improve the way in which we address the issue, draw attention to it, and try to bring it to light. Psychiatry is an evolving field and a relatively new one in human history – it’s not that teens and children weren’t as depressed before, but it wasn’t as often named or diagnosed, and there weren’t very many good ways to deal with it.
Recognizing the Effects of Depression in Teens
Depression can be characterized by many different things, but one of its primary symptoms or characteristics is the loss of joy and pleasure.
In teens and children, this can be recognized by a loss of interest in hobbies and play, as well as a significant drop in the amount of time spent with other people. Depressed teens tend to spend more time alone and may not even necessarily spend it doing the things they like doing.
Restlessness and Too Much Sleep
Oversleeping and feeling restless at night are also common signs of depression or other mental health issue. Sleep is crucial for kids and teens, and while it’s normal for teens to struggle with falling asleep even more than their adult counterparts for biological reasons, depressed teens often sleep in far longer than their peers and struggle to feel well-rested even after several hours spent oversleeping.
Emotional and Physical Fatigue
This brings us to emotional and physical fatigue, another important set of symptoms in depressed teens. “Feeling tired,” in the sense that one is affected by a form of exhaustion that bites to the very bone and can’t be rested away, is a common sentiment of depression in teens. It affects everything, from cognitive function – such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and memory – to physical strength and stamina and the will to act. Depression can sap a person’s motivation to the point that it becomes difficult to do even the simplest things, such as brush one’s teeth and hair or keep a room tidy.
Some other important effects of depression in teens include:
Depression, Appetite, and Body-Image
Puberty is a difficult time for most teens. Rapid physical change can be tough to get used to, especially when it happens gradually, in spurts, and often asymmetrically. Some body parts outgrow others, and then there are a whole host of awkward and sudden adjustments, from body odor to acne.
For teens with depression or anxiety, these changes can often trigger and reinforce a whole host of personal physical complexes and help foster a negative body image. Bullying in all its forms, whether physical or digital, can feed these thoughts.
That is why depression often co-occurs with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. In some cases, physical starvation or binge eating becomes an abstract form of self-harm and a sign of poor coping. To make matters worse, conditions like anorexia are among the most fatal mental health conditions and are often difficult to treat without an intensive mental intervention after hospitalization.
If your teen’s depression begins to affect them physically – leading to dangerous eating habits, such as binging and purging behavior, starvation, or growing body image issues – it’s important to step in early and talk about getting help.
Nihilism, Self-Harm, and Suicide
Sometimes, teens fixate on strange things and get into even stranger hobbies. Some teens make it their hobby to specialize in horror fiction and get into morbid curiosities. But an interest in the macabre is not the same as a depression-related fixation on death and suicide.
An important distinction to make here is that depressed teens are often preoccupied specifically with their own death, fantasizing either about what the world might be like without them or whether anyone would notice if they were gone. A common train of thought behind many cases of suicidal ideation is the thought that others would be better off or wouldn’t notice if they died.
It is crucial to recognize and address these thoughts and questions before they materialize into something more concrete. Some teens are completely quiet about how they feel – and even adults who contemplate suicide might do so for months or years without telling anyone before committing suicide one day. However, if your teen does discuss the topic quite often, take it seriously. It’s often more than just an act for attention.
Depression Throughout the Ages
At the end of the day, it’s also important to remember that depression is far from a teen issue. Rates of depression may be higher in older age groups than we can statistically verify, and the three age groups most likely to commit suicide include ages 25-34, 75-84, and 85+ at the highest, at a rate of roughly 21 deaths per 100,000. In contrast, only about 14 out of 100,000 people between the ages of 15-24 commit suicide per year – the lowest among all teen-and-adult age groups.
Depression can often go unnoticed, even among loved ones. Keep an eye out for subtle signs, such as behavioral changes, social changes, sudden weight loss or weight gain, or a loss of interest in personal hobbies. Recognizing depression in those we love is an important first step toward getting help.