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How to spot depression in your teenager

How Isolation from Covid lockdowns is spiking depression in teens, second in a two-part series on mental health

If you’re wondering if your teen has depression, you are not alone. One in five teenagers will suffer from depression at some point during their teen years. Occasional bad moods or acting out is expected and normal during the teenage years. The good news is that there are key signs to spotting teenage depression, which is highly treatable with help. 

This year, amid Covid pandemic lockdowns, depression (and anxiety, which we discussed in this story) are spiking. Now, a study published in JAMA Network Open offers one of the first nationally representative estimates of how severe the depression epidemic may be. Three times as many Americans met criteria for a depression diagnosis during the pandemic then before it, according to the paper.

And with more lockdowns comes more social isolation, which can lead directly to more teens and tweens spending their entire days on social media.  Even before we knew what Covid-19 was, depression among teens was a growing problem. Studies show that social media makes kids feel isolated and experience “Fear of Missing Out.” A recent study showed teens and young adults addicted to their Instagram or other social media accounts, had greater rates of depression, from 13% to 66% greater risk. Studies show a correlation between social media and depression rather than a direct causation. Many experts agree that these channels are negatively affecting many young people. 

One in five teenagers will suffer from depression at some point during their teen years.

So, if you’re concerned about your teen having depression. Here are a few signs:  

  1. Low energy and concentration/focus difficulties at school. This can lead to poor academic performance, high absenteeism, lateness and frustration in school.
  2. Running away – either talking about it or running away are signs of depression. This is a cry for help.
  3. Drug and Alcohol abuse – it’s a way to self-medicate their depression. Unfortunately, it only makes matters worse.
  4. Low self-esteem – depression can intensify teens’ feeling of ugliness, shame, failure and unworthiness.
  5. Smartphone addiction – teens use their technology as a form of escaping their problems. Social media can lead to isolation, Fear-of-Missing-Out, comparing themselves to others and depression.
  6. Reckless behavior: Teens may engage in dangerous or high-risk behaviors such as reckless driving, unsafe sex and binge drinking.
  7. Violence: usually in boys can become aggressive and violent.

Other signs can be self-injury, eating disorders and other mental health problems.

Symptoms:

  1. Sadness or hopelessness
  2. Irritability or anger
  3. Frequent crying
  4. Withdrawal from family and friends, activities they enjoy. 
  5. Poor school performance
  6. Change in eating and/or sleeping habits.
  7. Feelings of worthlessness
  8. Unexplained aches and pains
  9. Difficulty concentrating, focusing and lack of energy
  10. Thoughts of suicide or death

Don’t hesitate to get your teen help from a LPC, LCSW, Clinical Psychologist or Psychiatrist. 

The difference between adult and teen depression

  1. Teens are more prone to irritability, hostile behavior, anger and easily frustrated rather than sadness.
  2. Depressed teens complain about physical ailments such as headaches and stomachs especially before school or the night before. When taken to the doctor there is no physical reason for their aches and pain.
  3. Extreme sensitivity to criticism: This can be seen a lot in over-achievers/perfectionist teens. They are vulnerable to criticism and failure.
  4. While adults tend to isolate themselves, teens may keep a few friends, or they may switch friend groups.

If you’re not sure if it’s typical teen behavior or depression consider the following: How long the symptoms have been going on? How severe they are and how different your child is acting from their normal self? Hormones and stress can explain the occasional bout of teenage issues but not continuous and unrelenting happiness. 

Signs to watch for suicide

  1. Talking/joking about suicide
  2. Saying things such as:  “I wish I were dead,” or “I would be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever” or “There is no way out.” 
  3. Speaking positively about death or romanticizing about it. Example: If I died, people would love me more
  4. Writing stories/poems about death and/or suicide.
  5. Giving away prized possessions.
  6. Saying goodbye to family and friends as if it was the last time, they would see you
  7. Seeking out weapons, pills, knives or other ways to kill themselves. Also, looking on the internet for ways to kill themselves.

Ways to talk to a depressed teen

  1. Focus on being an empathetic listener: Resist the urge to criticize or judge. Let your teen know you are there for them. Be supportive and unconditional.
  2. Be gentle and persistent: Don’t give up if they shut you out at first. It’s a tough topic to talk about but very important not to give up.
  3. Acknowledge their feelings: Don’t tell them their feelings aren’t valid. Don’t say “Things aren’t so bad.”
  4. Trust your instincts: If your child says nothing is wrong but you feel differently go with your gut. Talk to a third party if necessary, like school counselor, coach or teacher 

    Above all, don’t hesitate to get outside help. Find a Licensed professional counselor (LPC), Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW), Clinical Psychologist or Psychiatrist. Ask around for references. You’ll find that you’re truly not alone as others are struggling with the same issues. 

–Diane Lang 

Diane Lang has an M.A. in Counseling and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from the New York Institute of Technology. Visit her website.