A guest post by Kristen Gardner
Depression in teenagers is an often overlooked, however prolific problem. Often mistaken for normal teenage mood swings and hormones, depression does affect a large number of teenagers, and should be treated as such. When not treated properly depression in teenagers can lead to self injurious behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, self loathing and even suicide. The initial problem is identifying the depression at the outset, second is recognizing the devastating nature of depression, and third is treating the depression properly.
The teenage years are particularly moody and difficult. Making it even more difficult for parent, teachers and other concerned parties to decipher mood swings and lower moods. How do you tell if you’re teenager is just “being a teenager” or if they’re suffering from a serious illness? The answer is, it’s not easy and ultimately a professional would have to make the diagnosis and prescribe medications and perform treatment, therapy, etc. However, knowing the signs of depression in teens is vital to making the first steps towards receiving professional help.
Sadness and hopelessness are key signs of depression in anyone, including teenagers. Irritability and hostility and withdrawal from friends and family are indicators but also common in smaller, less intense doses in healthy teenagers. So it can be quite difficult to determine whether depression is afflicting a teenager or not. Lack of motivation, restlessness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, feeling drained (lack of energy), violent mood swings, and worst of all, contemplation of death and suicide--all of these are signs of depression in teenagers.
Consider how long these symptoms have been present, if they’re ongoing it’s more likely an illness than a case of being a pain in the butt teenager.
Depression affects teenagers in many ways, including lower performance in academics (also skipping school), sports, and other hobbies, loss of interest in former hobbies, using the computer to an excess, violence and reckless behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, self harm and suicidal ideation or attempts. Drug and alcohol abuse is what is called “self medicating”. Teenagers are in so much pain, they use alcohol (which happens to be a depressant) and various drugs to self medicate and try and make themselves feel better. Ultimately it ends up hurting them and the high is temporary.
Attempt to support and talk to your teenager. Don’t lecture or project concern onto them. Give them space but not too much. Validate their feelings, don’t challenge them. Try to be accepting and comforting, without smothering them or displaying your intense concern. Remember that they cannot just “snap out of it” and it’s not their fault. It’s probably not your “fault” either. Depression occurs due to something funky going on in the brain. Sometimes past experiences like trauma affect the brain as well, and could contribute to the depression but in most situations the depression is “caused” by many things all at once. Don’t give up on them, because they’re probably about ready to give up on themselves. Let them know you care and are there for them. Read up on teenagers and depression, find support groups online, educate yourself and others as much as possible.
If you see warning signs, seek professional help. Don’t be in denial, but also don’t be overly paranoid and see signs where there are none. If you’re worried your teenager is ill, seek professional help immediately, don’t wait for symptoms to go away. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications and a psychologist, social worker or therapist can provide therapy. Both could be key in helping your teenager. Find a good psychiatrist and psychologist or therapist (sometimes this can be the same person) online or through your network of friends. Set up a session. Inform the doctor of your concerns before the private session with just the doctor and your teenager.
This is more the job for the psychiatrist to be concerned with, but note that medications alter the neurotransmitters in the brain. They can “fix” things which are wrong and causing depression, but they can also have a reverse effect and make things worse, or cause other side effects like weight gain. So be wary of medications because while often vital and often safe, they can have adverse effects on your teenager, because everyone’s chemical makeup differs the doctors to some extend only guess which medications might be most useful for you teenager. Now of course they know what each medication can potentially do, what medications don’t mix with others and so forth. They’re the experts so trust them but they may also be trusting you to keep an eye on your teenager as they begin taking a medication.
NEVER give your child medication that a friend’s teeager has found helpful. You can suggest such a medication to a professional, but never give prescription medications not prescribed to your teenager, to your teenager. It might feel like a good idea because “it worked for your friend’s child” but it’s a terrible idea and could seriously harm your child. For some of you this piece of advice might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many parents take medication from other parents to treat their kids. Make sure your teenager is taking medication as prescribed and if there is any inkling of suicidality, keep the medications locked up until daily use (in other words don’t give them enough to overdose on).
Call a doctor if your teenager seems to be worsening after a medication change. The doctor needs to be “in the loop” with medication side effects. Don’t assume it’s just an adjustment period. The doctor must know about changes in mood, etc. due to a medication change, in order to evaluate the situation and make other changes as needed. It could be a matter of life of death, as some medications might really not integrate with your teenager’s system and cause intense suicidality. But also let your teenager have a fairly exclusive relationship with the doctor to facilitate a trusting relationship between the two of them. The notion of a parent whispering in their doctors ear about them, is a huge turn off for teenagers, or anyone.
Encourage exercise (which released endorphins) and social activity, especially if they’re isolating. Be understanding and stay involved in treatment, but not excessively involved as to put off your teenager and cause them to not want to work with their doctor. Really educate yourself and your family about depression in teens.
It’s possible signs of depression could indicate another mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Don’t attach too much fear to these highly stigmatized labels. They’re simply mental health disorders like depression, only they manifest in different ways. A professional will be able to diagnose the particular disorder in your teenager and then you’ll conduct research specific to their illness and go from there. When treated properly things like schizophrenia are not as scary as they seem or are made out to be by society.
Take care if you think your teenager is depressed, do your research, consult professionals, monitor their medications and attempt to talk to your teenager openly and encouragingly about their illness.