More than mood swings: Understanding teen depression

We often think of depression as something that only impacts adults. But in reality, teen depression is also common — affecting as many as one in five teenagers in the United States.

It can be difficult for anyone to determine whether the emotions they’re experiencing are normal or a sign of something more serious. But it’s especially difficult when it comes to teens.

After all, teen “angst” or mood swings are considered a fact of life and a challenge parents and teens alike should prepare to face.

But at a certain point, those emotional swings may represent more than the simple emotional ups and downs of adolescence. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms and when to seek help.

Read on as we take a look at teen depression and what to watch for to protect your child and his or her mental health.

The pressures of being a teen

Being an adolescent isn’t easy. It sometimes can feel like they’re on a roller coaster of emotions. One minute your teen may be happy only to feel sad or lonely soon after. The smallest thing may make him or her angry or upset.

Those are all very normal parts of being a teen. The body and mind of a teen are going through tons of changes that can impact everything from how they behave to what they think.

The changing hormones involved in adolescence also can play a role in causing emotions to fluctuate.

So, how can you tell if your teen’s emotions are normal or something caused by an underlying condition like depression? The trick is: Look for symptoms and signs that are present for a length of time rather than coming and going on occasion.

What teen depression may look like

Let’s dive in a little further: If your teen is experiencing depression, you likely will notice a change in attitude and behavior. This change often is enough to cause distress or issues at home or at school.

Here’s what to watch for:

  • Extreme sadness, including crying spells
  • Anger, often about small or inconsequential things
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Irritability or annoyance
  • Loss of interest in activities they previously found enjoyable
  • Low self-esteem or confidence
  • Fixation on failures
  • Difficulty thinking, remembering or making decisions

Beyond these emotional changes, if your child is experiencing teen depression, you also may see behavioral changes such as:

  • Extreme fatigue and low energy
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive sleep
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Frequent headaches
  • Social isolation
  • Poor academic performance
  • Reduced attention to hygiene or appearance
  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Self-harm
  • Angry outbursts

If you spot any of these signs in your teen, have a conversation with your child. Talk with your teen about what he or she is experiencing and whether it feels overwhelming. Provide reassurance child that help is available to get him or her back to feeling more normal.

Teen depression & suicide

Unfortunately, teen suicide is a sobering reality. Each year, nearly 5,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 take their lives. This rate has been increasing steadily since the 1960s making suicide the third leading cause of death among adolescents.

That’s why it’s vitally important for parents to keep an eye on their teen’s health and behavior. Suicidal thoughts sometimes can occur in those with teen depression, but medical attention and treatment can help lower the risk of action.

Pay special attention to these warning signs and seek medical attention immediately if they occur in your teen:

  • Suicide threats, even if made indirectly
  • Obsession with death
  • Dramatic personality changes
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Significant drop in school performance
  • Giving away belongings
  • Writing poems or creating drawings that reference death
  • Experiencing irrational, out-of-character behavior

What to do if your teen is depressed

While very serious, teen depression is treatable. If you think your child is experiencing signs of teen depression, a visit with his or her primary care physician is a good first step.

If the doctor believes depression is present, he or she can recommend a personalized treatment plan for your child. This may include referral to a mental health specialist, along with recommendations for counseling, medications, support groups, or specialized depression programs.

The important thing is that teen depression is not something your child has to go through alone, because help is available.

If you think your teen may be depressed, talk with his or her pediatrician, who can help make a diagnosis and determine next steps. Need a doctor? Find one here.