The stereotypical teen is moody, rebellious, and hopelessly adrift. Teen angst, in particular, has almost become a caricature to represent the whole experience of the teen years. It is unfortunate. The third leading cause of teen death is suicide from un- or under-treated depression. Knowing the difference between what should be considered normal teenage feelings of sadness, stress, and/or depression and a mental health crisis is complicated at best. Teenagers are every bit as complex as adults when it comes to managing mental health. What works for one may not have much of an impact on another.
By The Numbers: Teen Depression
While it is one thing to look at your own child and explain away his mood when you look at your son in the context of teens and depression as a whole group as the CDC has done some alarming statistics appear:
- 14 is the average age of onset
- 20 percent of teens will experience depression
- 70 percent improve with treatment
- 80 percent of depressed teens never receive help
Eighty-percent of teens are never treated for their depression. Parents let that sink in for a moment—80-percent—because that number is on us as parents. It begs the question: Are we overlooking the signs of depression in our teenagers? Do we brush-off the signs as the angsty stereotype? Do we think they will just ‘get over it’ or grow out of it?
Parents, the consequences of being in denial about our teens’ depression can have a lifelong impact. Most adult depression has roots in the teenage years. Teens can skate through life for a while because we expect them to be moody or difficult. However, those issues will remain as candles are added to their birthday cake. At some point we, and society, considers them adults. The depression they have been battling for years is also supposed to be ‘magically’ resolved. However the truth is untreated depression costs nearly $44 billion annually. According to WebMd, untreated depression is equal to heart disease and AIDS when it comes to the impact on the economy. Denying our teens treatment can even lead to permanent disability. Perhaps that all sounds a bit harsh and uncomfortable. But, parents we are clearly failing our kids when it comes to recognizing and treating their depression early.
Drawing The Line
Sadness, worry, and even mild depression are all normal human—and teenage—emotions. Your kid is going to have off days just like you do. Everyone experiences those moments where we feel the world is closing in on us. Someone was rude to us. The person we trusted let us down. A beloved pet dies. Our best friend moves away. Those are all excellent examples of trigger events. Experiencing them and feeling bad is perfectly normal. But, at some point the normal human emotions linger too long and real depression sets in. Generally speaking if a period of sadness extends longer than two weeks, or recurs multiple times, it is considered cause for concern. In the case of a death, the sadness would give way to grief which may last much longer than a couple of weeks. However, grief can also morph into clinical depression if it is not managed.
In addition to feelings of sadness, depression can manifest in these ways:
- Marked changes in ‘normal’ behavior including clothing, music, friendships, habits
- Sad, anxious, empty feelings
- Difficulty concentrating or seeming ‘spaced out’
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Irritability, restlessness
- Guilt, helplessness, feeling unworthy
- Risk taking and/or a pattern of injuries and/or self-injury such as cutting
- Changes in sleep patterns and behavior—too much and/or not enough
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies, quitting teams or clubs
- Overeating or appetite loss
- Aches or pains, including headaches, cramps
- Digestive problems including nausea, vomiting, constipation
- Suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts
- A new interest in, or a preoccupation with death and/or violence
Knowing When And How To Seek Help
Now that you know what to look for how do you go about finding the right help for your teen? For teen depression early treatment is best. If two to three weeks have passed and your teen does not seem to be returning to his normal self, it is time to seek treatment. Your family doctor would be the best place to start because he or she can quickly rule out medical causes. The doctor can also provide you with referrals to qualified teen therapists in your area. Depending on your son’s specific issues he may need a full psychological work-up. Unfortunately for most teens this is where we parents are failing. The stigma of mental illness is still so pervasive that some parents cannot overcome their own issues to get their teen the help he needs. If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor and the therapist about your own feelings. Your son needs you and counseling right now. If getting him the treatment he needs is making you feel uncomfortable, then you also need to talk to someone. The only time mental illness is a bad thing is when it is left untreated to the point it causes irreparable emotional harm, and physical displays including suicide or violence against others. Early and proper treatment prevents disaster.
An Ounce Of Prevention
One of the best gifts we can give our teenagers—especially our boys—is permission to feel. If they are sad, do not say, “Cheer up.” By saying, “Cheer up,” the message often is interpreted as the feelings they are having are wrong. Especially with teenagers, sometimes they will hold the feelings out of spite and defiance rather than work through them. It becomes a power play at a time when they are trying to learn how to assert their own feelings and thoughts. When you say, ‘get over it’ you are also teaching your teen to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Avoidance, especially when dealing with major life changes such as death, divorce, or another trauma, can increase the depressive feelings and lead to other negative coping mechanisms. Instead say, “Whenever you need to talk, I want you to know I am here to listen.” This validates their feelings and keeps the doors of communication open. Giving them the space to feel and work through their feelings is also a life skill too few parents are teaching. It is not a guarantee your teen will avoid depression, however.
In addition to giving your teens permission to feel, being a depression-savvy parent can also go a long way toward strengthening your teen’s emotional health. Maintaining a good relationship with a teenager can feel like trying to hug a porcupine but it is worth it when your teen knows he can come to you when he is feeling down. The truth is you are your teen’s best defense against sadness morphing into depression and depression morphing into dangerous behavior.