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Teen Depression: A Silent Epidemic

Depression is a serious mental health condition that many teenagers endure throughout their daily lives. Learn more about the impact of mental health and teen depression.

Teenagers face countless challenges and pressures, even during "normal" times. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a unique set of obstacles to teens' lives, with many adolescents and young adults experiencing mental health symptoms for the first time. Consequently, navigating the teen years can be extremely tough, and depression affects more teenagers than many of us realize. In fact, one in five adolescents will experience depression at some point during their teen years.

Depression in children, adolescents, and young adults is much more than a phase. Depression is a serious mental health condition that can interfere with everyday life, lead to suicidal thoughts, and affect an individual in the long-term. Although depression is highly treatable with a combination of psychotherapy and medication, most depressed teens never receive help.

Fortunately, with appropriate treatment, most people with depression live fulfilling, productive lives. Even though opening up about depression can feel overwhelming, seeking professional help is the first step toward feeling better.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Teen Mental Health

Teen Mental Health

From upended routines to missed milestones, the impact of COVID-19 has taken a serious toll on adolescent mental health. Studies show that fears and social restrictions surrounding the pandemic have had a negative impact on teens' mental health, especially adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19.

Mental illness among young people was already on the rise when COVID-19 emerged as a pandemic. However, COVID-related changes, including social distancing and remote learning, have added new stressors. Friend groups and social interactions play important roles in development during adolescence, but these opportunities have been limited during the pandemic. At the same time, some teenagers are missing their first semester of high school, their graduation ceremony, or their first season on the varsity team. As a result, many adolescents feel frustrated, lonely, and disconnected due to social distancing and limited social outlets.

According to a March 2020 national poll, nearly 50 percent of parents reported that their teenager showed signs of a new or worsening mental health condition during the pandemic. For adolescents with pre-existing mental health conditions, COVID-related changes may have exacerbated symptoms.

Many teenagers have experienced mental health issues during the pandemic, but it's important to remember that major depressive disorder goes far beyond sadness. If you think your teen has major depression or another depressive disorder, it's important to monitor their behavior and mood for common signs of depression.

Signs and Symptoms of Teen Depression

Because normal behaviors vary as adolescents develop, it can be difficult to know if your teen is going through a phase or experiencing a mental health condition. Although occasional bad moods or "acting out" is expected during the teenage years, depression is much different. The symptoms of teenage depression extend far beyond a low mood or feelings of sadness.

Depression can be debilitating, disrupting your teen's ability to function in school, connect with other people, and carry out daily activities. Left unchecked, depression can negatively impact your teen's personality, leaving them filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness, despair, and worthlessness. Teen depression is often associated with co-occurring mental disorders, including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and ADHD.

If you think your teen might have depression, keep an eye out for the following warning signs:

  • Persistent low mood: Frequent crying, low energy, and feelings of sadness are often related to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. However, not all teenagers with depression might appear sad. Instead, some teens might express their emotions through irritability, anger, and mood swings.
  • Poor school performance: Depression can cause fatigue and sleep problems, making it difficult to concentrate. At school, this might turn into poor attendance, poor grades, or frustration with schoolwork.
  • Loss of interest in activities: You might notice that your teen shows less interest in their favorite hobbies. For example, they might quit a sports team or stop spending time with their friends outside of school.
  • Substance use: Some teenagers might turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate their depression. Drug and alcohol abuse are not healthy coping mechanisms for depression, and it's important to seek professional help if your teenager has a substance use problem.
  • Low self-esteem: Depression can trigger low self-esteem, which might prevent your teenager from trying out new hobbies or participating in social interactions. Low self-esteem might look like constant complaints about your teen's physical appearance or school performance.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns: Depressed teens might spend more time in bed than usual, or they might experience sleeping problems, such as insomnia. You might also notice that your teen is eating more or less than normal, which might lead to weight loss or weight gain.
  • Unexplained aches and pains: You might notice your teenager frequently complaining about headaches, stomach aches, and other physical symptoms that lack a medical explanation.
  • Smartphone addiction: Depressed teenagers might go online to escape from their problems. Unfortunately, social media and screen time often contribute to feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and loneliness.
  • Reckless behaviors: Teenagers might engage in dangerous or reckless behaviors, such as speeding, binge drinking, and unsafe sex, to cope with their emotions.

How To Help Your Teen Overcome Depression

For teenagers with depression, the idea of seeking professional help can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to help your teen start the recovery process. There are several effective treatments for depressive disorders, including talk therapy, psychiatric medications, and lifestyle changes. From supporting your teen to navigating treatment options, here's how to help your depressed teen improve their quality of life.

  • Listen to their concerns: Teenagers are usually hesitant to talk about difficult personal topics with their parents. Show your teen how much you care about them by asking them open-ended, non-intrusive questions about their mental health. Choose the right time, let your teen know what behaviors you've noticed, and give them the opportunity to express their feelings. And if your teen doesn't open up to you, but you sense that something is off, trust your gut. Try turning to a third party, such as a school counselor or teacher, to help your teen open up.
  • Acknowledge their feelings: Let your teen know that you've noticed how hard things have been for them lately. Tell them how much you care about them and their wellbeing, and share your own experiences with mental health and talk therapy. It's important to provide your unconditional support while your teen navigates their mental health issues, but remind yourself that parental support isn't always enough. If your teen's depression interferes with their daily life, it might be time to seek depression treatment from a licensed therapist.
  • Encourage healthy lifestyle habits: Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can help your teen build resilience and feel their best. Consider setting a time each night to have dinner with the family, or try going on daily walks with your teen around the neighborhood. In addition, promote healthy sleep hygiene by setting limits on screen time and social media use.
  • Stick to a routine: Setting a daily schedule can help add structure and stability to your teen's day, which can make all the difference in their mental wellbeing. Try blocking out a few hours each day for classes and assignments. Work with your teen to create a realistic schedule that includes meals, breaks, time for social interaction, and physical activity.
  • Check-in with your teen's primary health care provider: In some cases, the symptoms of depression can mimic the symptoms of medical conditions, such as thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies. It's important to check in with your teen's primary care physician regularly to rule out any underlying conditions and stay up-to-date with their physical health.
  • Seek professional help: Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is the first-line treatment for depression. Several different kinds of therapy can help teenagers navigate their mental health issues, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and interpersonal therapy (IPT). Working with a licensed therapist can help your teen develop healthy coping mechanisms, identify the underlying cause of their depression, and replace their negative thoughts with more positive ones.

When exploring different treatment options, make sure to get your teen's input. If you want your teenager to be motivated and engaged in their treatment, it's essential to make a collaborative decision based on their preferences. Remember: Therapy isn't a linear process, and change won't happen overnight. Over time, your teen will learn strategies to overcome their depression, manage their mental health symptoms, and start feeling better.

Contact Us

Lifestyle changes and parental support can make a world of difference for depressed teens, but it's not always enough. Even though it might seem daunting to start therapy during this time, many therapists, including the expert team of clinicians at Charlie Health, have adapted to the current climate by providing high-quality, comprehensive telehealth appointments through video sessions.

If your teen needs more support than once-a-week therapy sessions, our intensive outpatient program (IOP) offers a convenient solution for depressed teenagers and their family members. Unlike traditional IOPs, we connect each client to a licensed therapist based on their individual needs, preferences, background, and experiences to promote healing in a safe, supportive space.

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