How to Recognize--and Help--Teens with Depression

March 22, 2018 Justine Bello, MD


All teens have rough days--moments when they shut themselves off in their room, seem sad or lonely, or are uncommunicative with family members. But for more and more American teens, these days aren't isolated incidents--they're signs of depression.

In fact, teen depression is more common than you may think. During 2016, 2.7 million teens--about one out of every nine American adolescents--dealt with major depression. And that number is growing--according to a report from the government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the national rate of teen depression is 11 percent, up from 9.9 percent in 2012-2013.

"It's important for parents to know the difference between a bad day and major depression," says Mission Heritage Medical Group physician Justine Bello, MD, board-certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. "Teens can get in a fight with a friend or do poorly on a test, and they may be upset about it for a day or two. But generally, a major depressive episode is diagnosed when symptoms last more than two weeks. Because teen depression can lead to poor grades or drug and alcohol use, parents should pay attention to their teens' lives so they can recognize when a behavior is a signal of profound depression." Among the symptoms to look for:

  • Outbursts of anger or irritability
  • Complaints of ailments such as headaches or stomach pain
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Withdrawing from family and friends, or dropping out of activities
  • Lack of focus or the ability to solve problems
  • Problems sleeping and extreme daytime fatigue
  • Changes in eating habits
  • A drop in grades and loss of interest in schoolwork
  • Drug or alcohol use

"These symptoms can be precipitated by a traumatic event, such as divorce or death in the family, a break-up or problems in school," Dr. Bello says. "There is also a higher risk of depressive episodes for teens who have a family history of depression, are struggling with chronic illness or learning disabilities or lack necessary social skills. And girls have double the risk of depression compared to boys. Also, teens today have a lot of stress, and if they don't have ways to cope with it, that can be taxing for them, too."

Parents can play a crucial role in getting their teens the mental health support they need. Dr. Bello recommends that they:

  • Communicate openly and honestly. "Create a safe space for teens to feel comfortable talking, and ask them what they are feeling and how long they've been struggling with those feelings; perhaps ask if they want to talk to another adult, too, such as a counselor," Dr. Bello says. "It's important for parents to truly listen to what their teens say."
  • Get medical help. "If the family doctor or pediatrician has expertise in treating depression, schedule an appointment, or ask for a referral if a specialist is needed," says Dr. Bello. "The doctor will probably do an exam to make sure there aren't any physical causes at the root of the problem, and will talk with the teen to evaluate the symptoms." There are also programs specially designed to help teens, such as the Center for Adolescent Mental Health and Family Wellness at Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach. This hospital-based treatment program helps teenagers facing myriad issues, including depression.
  • Take immediate action if there is a possibility of suicide. "If teens mention suicidal thoughts, or they seem to be growing increasingly distant by saying 'goodbye' to family and friends, giving away personal possessions or taking extreme actions that put their lives in danger, don't hesitate to get help," Dr. Bello says. Parents can either contact the doctor or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
  • Eliminate undue stress. "Teens have so many responsibilities with school and part-time jobs, extracurricular commitments and preparing for college that it can all be too much," Dr. Bello says. "Take a good look at what's important and what can be dropped from a busy schedule." For more tips on helping teens lead balanced lives, click here.
  • Let teens know it's not their fault. "Unconditional love and support are a balm for teens at this time," says Dr. Bello. "They should be reassured not only that they are loved, but that depression is not their fault and it can be treated."

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.



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