Most teenagers are moody, have emotional outbursts, and argue a lot. They withdraw from their family, often lack motivation and have irregular sleep patterns. Even prolonged reflection on life and death, which is often an indicator for depression in adults, is normal at that age.
Failure to identify and address depression in adolescents can have both short-term and long-term negative effects. With suicide being the worst possible outcome, other problems include the risk for substance abuse, health problems, and school failure. Depression makes family life and relationships in general very difficult for everybody involved. In the long run, it impacts a person’s ability to be successful and live a happy life.
Parents are placed in the difficult position of figuring out if their child is just going through a phase or is in need of help. As a parent, you want to look out for abrupt, persistent, and/or highly uncharacteristic changes. Examples for that are substantial weight loss or gain, a drop in grades, isolation from friends, or signs of self-injury.
Another warning sign can be a persistent lack of interest in things your child usually loves. Most adolescents, even when they are moody or irritable, enjoy certain parts of their lives, such as music, food, or hanging out with friends. A young person with depression often can’t find pleasure in anything, which is beautifully illustrated by this poem, written by a 13-year-old:
It sinks you in, depression
It’s a black hole. You never see light
You try to find happiness
But you can’t because you don’t
Know what makes you happy
It’s like everybody is colorful and
You stay back watching yourself
With no color
Depression isn’t sadness, it’s
Loneliness, hurt, lost, and numb. Generally, it is better to err on the side of caution than to miss a serious problem. Parents know their children best and they are the most important people in a young person’s life. However, parents are not always able to help a child – especially a child suffering from depression. Adolescents might be more receptive to talking to an outside person who is not emotionally involved. Relatives or teachers can be helpful, but if symptoms persist, it may be necessary to seek out professional assistance.
In therapy, teenagers can find a place to talk about their thoughts and feelings in a less emotionally-charged environment. They will also acquire more helpful coping skills, learn about useful behavior changes, and practice more adaptive ways of thinking and relating to their environment. Parents have an opportunity to learn more about how to support their child, and families as a whole can practice communicating and relating to each other better.
For persistent and severe depression, it might be necessary to add medication to the treatment. Often, this is only needed for a relatively short time before the adolescent feels better. Many people are concerned about giving medication to children and teenagers because their brains are still developing and we don’t know what the long-term effects of anti depressants at that age might be. The risks and benefits of medication should be considered on an individual basis in conjunction with a trusted physician or psychiatrist. Mental health professionals often work closely with physicians to assist families with these decisions.
Adolescence is a difficult time in a person’s life anyway. Struggling with depression on top of everything else makes it even harder. The good news is that, with the right treatment, most adolescents will feel better, often in a short time. Their brain has a high level of plasticity and they are therefore able to form new connections and implement new behavior very quickly.
If you are concerned about your adolescent son or daughter, contact any of the mental health providers in Moab for an evaluation. The earlier your child and your family receive help, the faster things can improve.
Antje Rath, is a clinical mental health counselor who has a private practice in Moab. She can be reached at 435-719-5550, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.