Depression in Young People

Just Being Teens?
How to Recognize Depression in Young People

By Fritz Engstrom, MD

The ups and downs of adolescence are hallmarks of both the excitement and turmoil that almost all teens experience on the path to becoming young adults. Nature, in its infinite wisdom, did not see fit to design this phase in life as a stretch of smooth sailing. But when the normal gamut of emotions and dramas that are part and parcel of adolescence become something else, it’s time for parents, teachers, healthcare providers and others to sit up and take notice.

Depression can be different for teens

Depression in teens often looks different than depression in adults. But the effects can be just as devastating. For example, while an adult with depression may appear sad and withdrawn, a teen with depression may instead become irritable, grumpy or easily frustrated. And rather than becoming withdrawn and isolated, which is typical for many depressed adults, teens will often maintain at least a few friendships or even start spending more time with a different crowd. But the underlying pain and feelings of despair and hopelessness are just as intense.

For the most part, teens tend to depend on adults for guidance and support in health related matters. Because they are less likely to initiate steps to address mental health problems like depression, the importance of having observant and caring adults in a teen’s life cannot be understated.

I recently treated a 21-year-old man for severe addiction to narcotics. He started using drugs when he was 16, primarily because he felt so depressed--sad, lonely, withdrawn and without an appectite. He remebers that no one took him seriously.

Signs and symptoms to look for

A number of signs and symptoms can point toward clinical depression in teens. These include sadness, hostility, frequent crying, withdrawal from family and friends, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and thinking about or attempting suicide.

A depressed teen may also complain about frequent headaches and stomachaches that have no apparent physical cause. THey may experience a drop in school performance (or not want to go to school), reduced involvement in extracurricular activities and new or increased use of alcohol or other drugs. Lastly, because depressed teens tend to feel worthless and guilty, they may be hyper-sensitive to criticism.

If you suspect that a teen you know or care about is depressed, then talk to him or her. Discuss the signs and symptoms you have noticed and share your concerns. Even if your teen insists “nothing is wrong” it’s important to schedule a visit with the family doctor or seek the help of a specialist.

Fortunately, depression is highly treatable. Effective options include individual therapy, group therapy, and medication. A combination of therapy and medication can also produce outstanding results. Make sure to include your teen in the process of choosing of a provider. That’s because connecting with the right healthcare professional is an important part of making a successful recovery. And making a successful recovery from depression is an important step toward helping teens look ahead to a long and meaningful life.