I don’t recall much talk about depression back when I was a young teen. I do remember feeling deeply sad at times though. There were long days of gloominess and often a sense of futility. I remember the feeling that I didn’t think I could talk with my family, and I remember not even wanting to. Those gray episodes came and went.
I also remember the sadness lifting substantially a few years later – just about the time my class was approaching the excitement and independence of driving, graduation and college. If very many of my high school peers were depressed, I didn’t know about it. Either most of us were doing okay, or we somehow quietly struggled through and creeped out of the fog in time for commencement exercises.
These days though, things have changed, and teen depression is making headlines regularly. The issue has garnered so much concern that the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends screening kids for depression between the ages of 11 and 21.
Rates of teen depression have risen steadily over recent years. In November 2016, the Journal Pediatrics reported that, over the course of the decade ending in 2014, the rate of adolescents reporting a bout of major depression increased by 37 percent. And more recently, researchers in the UK analyzed information from more than 10,000 children born in 2000-2001 and reported that one in four girls are depressed at age 14.
In general, 14-year-olds from families that were better-off financially were less likely to suffer from depression than their less-affluent peers. Also, girls from white and mixed-race backgrounds were more likely to report major depressive symptoms than girls of Black African or other races. The study’s lead author, Dr. Praveetha Patalay, called the mental health problems faced by teenage girls today “worryingly high.” So, what gives? Why are today’s teens struggling with emotional turmoil in such large numbers?
Well, the jury is out on that question. The fingers are pointing in many different directions, including peer pressure, family life, and social media. With the alarm comes calls for more access to children’s mental health professionals, particularly in schools.
But let’s bring this issue home for a moment, because most of these kids live in a home with one or two parents, and parents are therefore the first line of defense. Interestingly, the UK study revealed a sizeable gap between parents’ perceptions of their teen’s mental state, and the teen’s self-reported state, especially when it came to girls. Only 18 percent of parents described depressive symptoms in their daughters, while 24 percent of the girls described themselves as depressed. This begs the question: how well do we know our teens?
It’s impossible to miss the warning found in a violent outburst or a suicide note. But more subtle problems may be easier to miss. Debbie Slavik, MA, LPCC, LMFT, notes the importance of more subtle signs. “What many people do not realize is that depression can also represent itself as irritability," says Slavik. "This can be confusing when you may already be dealing with hormonal changes or PMS. In order to rule out PMS, you would want to look for irritability that continues for longer than two weeks. In addition, a combination of one or more other symptoms will likely also be present, such as a lack of motivation or interest in activities, withdrawal, fatigue, lack of concentration, indecisiveness, weight gain or loss, and sleeping too much or too little.”
Obviously, many teens (and adults) will experience these things at some point. Life has its ups and downs. That does not mean one is necessarily at risk of serious depression. But, as Slavik points out, how long these symptoms last is important: “Tracking them over a period of two weeks or more will help to weed out a clinical issue versus the more normal development of adolescence or simply a difficult situation your child may be going through.”
What can we do to help our child – or another – if we suspect depression? Thankfully, there are ways to help. Keeping a strong, healthy relationship with our teens makes it easier to be attuned to out-of-character signs that threaten to develop into a more serious problem.
According to Slavik, keeping open lines of communication, and taking the time to really understand our teens and let them know they are unconditionally accepted, is vital. The onus is on us as parents to reach out to our teens, to let them know we are interested in them and their lives, and to listen without criticism and judgment.
Slavik suggests that even tucking them in at night may still be a good idea: “Nighttime seems to be the time that teens begin to open up. Tucking them in allows them some individual time to share their struggles and feel supported, not to mention helping them to get a good night's sleep.”
However, Slavik also points out that sometimes professional help may be necessary to determine the severity of the depression, learn better coping skills, or to determine if medication may be necessary. Often depression can be resolved with professional intervention.