No doubt about it—teens are moody. In a blink of an eye, a teen’s mood can transform from happy and sunny to morose and miserable. Monitoring your teen’s mental health is just as important as paying attention to physical well-being.
Periods of sadness that last longer than a couple of weeks can signal a mental health problem, such as depression. According to a recent government report, depression is a major concern for children 12 to 17 years old. In the past year, more than one out of every 10 teens had a major episode of depression. Girls experienced three times more episodes of depression than boys.
Learn to Identify Depression
How can you tell the difference between normal moodiness and depression? “Depression is more than feeling moody, sad or having a couple of ‘bad days’ in a row,” says Dr. Lindsay Evans, a psychologist in Austin who specializes in adolescent depression. “It involves more intense feelings of sadness, loss of interest, anger or hopelessness. These feelings last for weeks or longer and disrupt the teen’s life.”
As a parent, you might notice:
- A lack of interest in things that the teen used to enjoy
- Less motivation at school or a decrease in grades
- Significant problems in relationships with friends or family
Use the sidebar “Checklist to Identify Depression” as a guide if you suspect your teen may be experiencing depression. According to Dr. Evans, depression is present if the period of sadness lasts longer than two weeks and is accompanied by at least four other changes in normal functioning.
Why It’s Important
Dr. Evans stresses the importance of identifying depression. “Depression in childhood and adolescence occurs during a time of important developmental changes. Depression can disrupt those natural processes. If not treated, depression has a tendency to reoccur.”
Teens who are depressed are at greater risk for:
- Poor performance and declining grades in school
- Difficulty in social situations
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
- Difficulties with depression or anxiety as adults
What Can Help
Strategies. Many strategies that can help a teen who is “depressed” can also help someone who is just feeling down. These include:
- Physical exercise, such as walking or sports
- Community activities, such as attending a youth group at a church or synagogue or participating in a clean-up day at a local park
- Hobbies, such as crafts, reading or playing music
- Behavioral activation, a method that uses positive reinforcement to help teens re-engage in activities
Professional Help. Dr. Evans says that if the feelings of sadness continue and don’t respond to the previous strategies, parents should consider help from a mental health professional. “Fortunately, research has shown that several treatments are effective for depression, such as psychotherapy—also called ‘talk therapy.’ For more severe depression, medication may also be helpful.”
What to Do
If you think your teen may be experiencing depression, do the following:
- Be patient and try to keep communications open.
- See if you can find out if the symptoms are a result of a specific incident, such as a relationship breakup or loss of a friend.
- Schedule an appointment with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist. If that’s not possible, discuss the problem with your pediatrician or family physician.
- Reduce stress in your household, if possible. You may need to reduce the number of activities or eliminate arguing and fighting. Work on building positive and relaxing activities into your family routine.
- Don’t demand that someone who is experiencing depression “just snap out of it.” Dr. Evans says, “Depression is more than just a passing bad mood. Saying ‘just get over it’ sends the message that your teen’s struggles are trivial or a sign of weakness.”
- Go to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website at nami.org for more information.
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer in Austin.
Checklist to Identify Depression
At least one of the following for 2 weeks or longer:
- Feels sad and down most of the day, nearly every day
- Is not interested in doing anything or has much less interest in things that used to be enjoyable
AND at least 4 other changes in normal functioning, such as:
- Can’t sleep or sleeps too much
- Doesn’t want to eat or eats too much
- Doesn’t have much energy
- Has trouble concentrating or making decisions nearly every day
- Feels very restless or very lethargic (“slowed down”)
- Feels worthless, very guilty, or has other signs of poor self image
- Has frequent thoughts about death or dying