Understanding Teen Depression: Signs, Causes, and Treatment

Depression is a mental health condition that is marked by apathy, sadness, and a lack of interest in life. It can be insidious in how it affects an individual’s well-being, seeping into and affecting all aspects of life: physical, emotional, social, and psychological. Although it can be easy to dismiss depression as a temporary issue or something an individual needs to just “get over,” it is a serious condition and should be treated.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 4.1 million adolescents aged 12-17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2020 – that’s 17% of the entire US population aged 12-17. Considering the prevalence and potential consequences, parents should know the causes, signs, and symptoms of teenage depression and the available treatment options.

Signs and symptoms of teen depression:

Being a teenager is hard. Between the social pressures, hormonal changes, and attempts to craft a self-identity, they are bound to experience emotional lows as they make their way through adolescence. However, their life should have a healthy mix of difficulty and ease. If they experience any of the following for more than two weeks, we recommend seeking help from a mental health professional.

  • Feelings of sadness, grief, hopelessness, or despair
  • Irritability, anger, or rage
  • Withdrawal from social activities, interests, and hobbies
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Life seems like a chore
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of motivation
  • Substance abuse
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Is it normal teen angst or depression?

It is normal for teenagers to be deeply feeling. Teen culture often reflects this in dramatic music, clothing, and poetry. The teen years, for many, are some of the most expressive and artistic years of our lives. This is, in part, because the amygdala is more developed than the pre-frontal cortex at this age. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotion, and the pre-frontal cortex is the logical part of the mind. So, how do you know if what your teen is going through is normal teen angst or clinical depression? We recommend booking a clinical assessment if you are worried. You can learn more here, about how to tell the difference.

In general, we recommend supporting your teen in fully expressing their feelings, regardless of how dark those feelings are. It can be deeply validating to read literature and find creative language to describe all of the dark, depthful contours of our hearts. We have a favorite quote here from Donna Tartt, describing a more existential and very normal feeling of disgust at humanity. Through welcoming and embracing our darkness, we can come to the other side of that darkness back into our shared humanity.

“Depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil.” – Donna Tartt

Causes and risk factors of depression:

Depression is a complex condition caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. While some factors are manageable, others are out of control – including family history and age.

Genetic factors:

Research has shown that genetic factors do play a role in adolescent depression. Some studies have even shown the heritability of Major Depressive Disorder to range from 30-50%, with some studies finding heritability as high as 67%. If an individual has a parent or sibling with major depression, they likely have a 2-3x greater risk of developing depression relative to the average person.

Even though research has occasionally found specific genes that are associated with depression, it is still unclear whether there are specific “depression genes.” Whether there is a single gene or set of genes that predisposes one to depression, awareness of one’s familial history of mental illness is integral to understanding risk factors for mental illness and subsequent mitigation and/or treatment.

Environmental factors:

Environmental factors also play a role in the development and severity of depression, with certain types of adversity being associated not only with increased occurrence of depression but with unique types of depression responsive to different treatment strategies than normal.

For instance, for male adoptees in homes where another individual had an alcohol problem or female adoptees in homes where another individual had a behavior disturbance, increased rates of depression have been recorded.

  • Substance abuse
  • Poor diet
  • Poor sleep
  • Lack of exercise
  • Chronic illness or disability
  • Bullying or social isolation
  • Academic or family stressors
  • Negative and/or traumatic life events, such as the death of a loved one or a breakup
  • Chemical exposure
  • Environmental pollution

Psychological factors:

Psychological factors can also contribute to the development of depression in teenagers. Some of these factors include:

  • Negative self-concept
  • Sensitivity to rejection
  • Neuroticism
  • Rumination
  • Negative emotionality
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty regulating emotions

Receiving a Depression Diagnosis

If you suspect that your teenager is experiencing depression, seek a professional diagnosis from a mental health provider. They will perform a thorough evaluation and recommend appropriate treatment options. 

Treatment for Depression:

Therapy

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a common treatment for depression. Examples of evidence-based approaches specific to the treatment of depression include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and interpersonal therapy (IPT). More information on psychotherapy is available on the NIMH Psychotherapies webpage.

Medication

Antidepressant medication may be prescribed for moderate to severe depression. It’s important to note that medication should only be used under the guidance of a mental health provider, it may take several weeks for the medication to take effect, and stopping treatment will often require lowering dosage over time rather than being able to stop immediately.

Brain stimulation

There are a few different types of brain stimulation therapy that have shown promise in treating depression, including:

  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
  • Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS)
  • Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)

When most people think of electrical stimulation of the brain, they think of electroconvulsive therapy, which has been used for over eighty years. Thankfully, the images of individuals strapped to chairs shown in movies are no longer accurate to how the treatment is administered. Although stigmas remain, ECT has progressed considerably since its introduction, and newer brain stimulation techniques are also showing great promise.

If you are wondering if your teen has depression, we recommend taking the following steps:

  1. Talk to your teenager about it. Tell them what you notice about their behavior that has you worried, and stay open and curious when you hear their response.
  2. Talk to your trusted parent friends. Ask what they would do if their teen were struggling or if they’ve been through anything like this before. Fellow parents can be your biggest allies. Get your support circle set up.
  3. Talk to their school counselor, tell them what you’re noticing, and ask if they have any suggestions. They may recommend you talk to their teachers or have free resources for you.
  4. Talk to your teen’s pediatrician. A pediatrician can give you a valuable perspective and be able to refer you to various treatment sources.
  5. If an IOP is something you are interested in exploring, we can help. Call Antelope Recovery or fill out our referral form, and we can do an intake with your teenager.
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Antelope Recovery Can Help

Understanding teen depression is the first step towards providing the necessary support and intervention for our young loved ones. Recognizing the signs, exploring the potential causes, and seeking timely treatment can make a profound difference in a teenager’s life. At Antelope Recovery, we are committed to addressing the complex challenges of teen mental health, including depression. Our comprehensive approach includes a range of therapeutic options, such as individual counseling, family therapy, and teen support groups, aimed at helping teens and their families navigate this difficult journey together. If you’re concerned about your teenager’s mental well-being, don’t hesitate to reach out. Together, we can work towards a brighter and happier future for your teen.

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