I don’t know if you have read the recent news about children’s mental health care and cuts over the last 5 years (the cuts equate to 5% or £50 million) (Buchanon, 2015), but children’s mental health is a big issue, and it appears to be affecting more children now then before. I guess this means, that as parents, we need to be more observant than ever before. It is unknown if instances of teenage depression are actually on the increase, or it is just that through education and the fact that depression is no longer such a taboo, we are reporting cases of it more.
Children nowadays are under so much pressure- with the Internet and Social Media- the pressure is actually 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s amazing how resilient teenagers are, given the constant pressure. But how do we know whether what they are going through is normal, hormonal teenage behaviour or an actual depressive illness? However, the average onset of depression is about 14 years old. By the end of the teenage years, 20% of teens will have had depression; of those, 70% will improve through treatment and 80% of these teens don’t ever receive help for their depression. Between 1 in every 12 children and 1 in every 15 young people self harm deliberately (Green, 2013).
So, as you can see, depression is actually a lot more prevalent than you might believe, with around 1 in 5 teens suffering. Depression can often run in families and can be preceded by a traumatic event, such as a divorce, death, a break-up or an abusive situation.
Firstly, it is really important to note that each person experiences depression in a different way from the next- our experience’s are unique to ourselves, and, although we can empathise (put ourselves in the other persons shoes) to a certain extent, we can never fully know what they are going through.
Yes, hormones are raging for teenagers, and it is a turbulent time to live through, but most teens manage their angsts with normal, sociable activities- meeting up with friends, sports, arts, music, and pride about success in school or outside activities. All of this helps to balance out the negative feelings and increase the teen’s sense of self. Bad moods, moodiness, grumpiness or ‘acting out’ (arguing, using their defence mechanisms to protect themselves from what is going on) and it is all part of the teenage years and the need to find your sense of self- if you are a parent, remember back to your teenage years? Perhaps they were difficult; perhaps you acted out? Remember that it is not an easy time; have some patience and try and listen to what your teen is telling you.
Although these moods are to be expected, there is a very big difference between moodiness and depression. Depression can challenge, and even destroy, a teens very idea of themselves or who they want to be. Depression causes overwhelming sadness and despair, which cannot be resolved by being told to ‘man up’ or ‘buck up your ideas’.
One of the most important things to recognise about depression is that your teen may not always appear sad; they could be putting on a front to hide their sadness. Teenagers are trying to assert their own independence over their parents, so the arguments and moodiness could just be that. However, for some depressed teens, symptoms can be rage, irritability and aggression, making it quite difficult to actually ascertain what is going on for them.
Signs and Symptoms of Teenage Depression
Some of the main signs and symptoms of depression (NHS, 2014) in teens can be easy to spot- others not quite so.
- Does your teen feel a sense of hopelessness or sadness? It can be for no reason at all.
- Does your teen have thoughts of death or suicide? ‘Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here’ can sometimes be a common thought.
- Do they suffer from a lack of energy? Are they fatigued more than normal?
- Are there any changes in their eating habits? Eating more, or less?
- Are there any changes in their sleeping habits? Sleeping more, sleeping less, night waking and being unable to return to sleep, waking up early?
- Have they withdrawn from the family and their friends?
- Are they tearful? Do they cry easily? Are they crying frequently?
- Have they lost interest in their usual activities? Is there a sense of apathy that wasn’t there before?
- Are they agitated? Restless? Unable to sit still?
- Are they suffering from feelings of worthlessness and guilt?
- Have they developed a difficulty in concentrating? Have their grades at school dropped?
- Have they lost their usual enthusiasm? Have they developed a lack of motivation?
- Are they feeling irritable? Angry? Hostile?
- Have they increased feelings of anxiety?
- Have they become extremely sensitive to criticism?
- Do they have unexplained aches and pains? Headaches or stomach aches, for example?
Headaches, stomach aches, withdrawing from people or hanging out with a new crowd, anger, irritability and sensitivity to criticism are more common in teenage depression than they are in adult depression.
What is the effect of Depression on Teenagers?
So, what is the actual effect of depression on your teen (Medlar, 2014)? Again, this is a very unique perspective- what happens for one teen may not be what happens for another, so it is important to go by your own experiences and not others!
- They may become violent, or more violent than usual. Usually, this is boys, but girls can become violent too. Sometimes they have been the victim of bullying, and are ‘acting out’ in the only way that they know how.
- Some teens develop problems at school; and some excel, as they throw themselves in to their work, rather than deal with what is going on. Depression can make you feel tired, give you difficulties in concentrating and with the added aches and pains, it can lead to low attendance at school or an apathy to not engage in the way they used too.
- Low self esteem- being depressed, your teen will already be in a low mood cycle. This can then intensify their feelings of guilt, shame, worthlessness, failure and even ugliness. They may even start to see problems where there are not problems.
- Some teens turn to drug and alcohol abuse- substances are a common way of dealing with feelings. Whilst we are drinking or on drugs, it can make us feel temporarily better and focus us away from the problems. The only problem is that substance abuse actually makes things worse for the depressed teen.
- High- risk behaviours, such as unprotected sex, sleeping around, out of control behaviours become common, as the teen is searching for a way to alleviate their pain.
- Some depressed teens may start to talk about running away; some may even run away. These are usually cries for help, so if this happens, it is important to listen to your teen.
- Self-harm can also be a way of expressing their depression. Keep an eye out for teens that appear to be hiding parts of their body with long tops, or a refusal to wear shorts in warm weather. It might be a fashion statement, but it could be a sign of something else.
What about Suicidal Tendencies?
Teens that are seriously depressed may make statements expressing suicidal tendencies. Although some of these statements may well be a way of getting attention, or a cry for help, some of these statements are real and the seriously depressed teen could act on their threats. So, when should you worry? What is a warning that your teen may well attempt suicide?
Firstly, is your teen expressing thoughts that they would be ‘better off dead’ or ‘there’s no point’ ‘things will never get better’? Negative statements that are really quite dark in thought and deed? Are they joking about committing suicide? This too can often be a cry for help, as can writing stories or poems about death, suicide and dying. Are they storing medications? Asking for pills or hiding pocketknives or razor blades in their rooms? More obvious signs would be saying goodbye to friends and family, as if this is the last time they will see them. And of course, reckless behaviour- are they getting hurt a lot because they are putting themselves in dangerous positions?
What Can I do If I Suspect My Teenager Is Suffering With Depression?
So, what do you do if you suspect your teen is suffering from depression? Well, the first thing to know is you are not alone! There is probably nothing you have done wrong or could of done differently to stop this happening. Even if you don’t know if it is depression, talk to your teen. Find out how they are doing. Perhaps knowing that someone is interested and there for them will help them to open up about what they are finding difficult.
Try and be empathic and non-judgemental; keeping your temper with them is tricky, but the more you can appear open to discussion, the more your teen will feel they can open up. Don’t over question your teen- this could stop them from trying to reach out; teenagers do not like to be pushed into doing things they don’t want too! Try not to patronize, or say things like ‘when I was your age’- imagine someone saying that to you, when you’re feeling down? It isn’t helpful, is it?
Do listen without lecturing- try not to pass judgement or criticize- it takes a lot of guts to open up, when feeling very depressed. The most important thing here is that your teen is trying to communicate with you! You cannot talk your teen into feeling better- listen and acknowledge how bad they are feeling; their pain and sadness. Let them know that you are taking what they say seriously and that it is of importance to you.
Your teen might be too scared too talk to you, or feel that they cannot open up about what is going on. If this is the case, get in touch with your G.P who can refer your child on to the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Team (CAMHS) or there may even be a Psychology Practitioner in your surgery who your teen can talk too. It is really important that your teen, if prescribed medication, does not rely on this alone. Evidence suggests that a combination of drug therapy and talking therapy or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) has been shown to be the most effective way to deal with depression.
It is also important to note that some medications can increase the suicidal thoughts; if this is the case, get in touch with your GP. Particularly if there are new suicidal thoughts, failed suicide attempts, difficulty sleeping, panic attacks, restlessness or agitations, new/worse irritability, hyperactive or any other unusual changes in your teen’s behaviour.
Finally, be kind to yourself and your teen- try to factor in some ‘me’ time, where you do something important to you; be it reading, a bath, socialising or going out for a coffee or swim. The more positive experiences we have, the better we feel, especially if we can remain connected to other people. This isn’t an easy task to do, and perhaps your teen really isn’t feeling like doing any of it. Try to respect their space, but gently encourage positive activities.
Remember, your teen may not understand their feelings or how to verbalise them, so trying to get them to talk to you could be really difficult- if you don’t understand it yourself, how can you explain it to someone else?
Buchanon, M. (2015) Childrens Mental Health Services Cut by £50 million, 9th January, [Online], Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30735370 [26 February 2015].
Green, H. (2013) Mental Health Statistics, 8 June, [Online], Available: http://www.youngminds.org.uk/training_services/policy/mental_health_statistics [26 February 2015].
Medlar, F. (2014) Signs of Depression, 8 June, [Online], Available: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/07/21/a-few-signs-your-teenager-may-be-depressed/ [27 February 2015].
NHS (2014) Depression, 5 June, [Online], Available: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Depression/Pages/Symptoms.aspx [20 February 2015].