When you have a prolonged conversation with any group of mothers of teens these days, there’s a good chance the topic of depression will come up, and someone will share that their child – usually a daughter – is now seeking treatment. Depression has become another condition, like Autism Spectrum Disorders and ADHD, which we wonder about as it affects our teens and young adults. Is it really more prevalent today, or is it just that we read more about it, and people are a little more willing to talk about the issue in public?
Unfortunately, depression is indeed on the rise in our country, particularly among adolescent girls and young adult women. National survey data collected from 2005 through 2014, show an increase of major depressive episodes (MDE) in both males and females, ages 12-25. The female rate of increase during these years was double that of the rate increase in males.
How do we know when our teenager or young adult is simply displaying the typical rollercoaster of emotions that we all remember, or when their mood and behavior signal a true problem? An MDE is defined as
a period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, including problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image.
For any parent who suspects their teen or young adult may be suffering from a depressive episode, it is very important to have a comprehensive evaluation done. A federal task force has recommended that all teens be screened for depression by their primary care provider, but this does not always happen, and often a parent may not know that their adolescent is at risk.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, children and teens at higher risk for depression include
those who have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning or anxiety disorders and oppositional defiance disorder. A young person who has experienced considerable stress or trauma, faced a significant loss or has a family history of mood disorders, is at increased risk for depression.
A 2015 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science showed that adolescent girls react differently to, and face more interpersonal stress, than boys do. Today, when you ask parents of teen girls what they think the greatest cause of stress is in their child’s life, you will get nearly unanimous agreement that it is social media. It is easy to see that the constant pressure of self-promotion and the resulting need for validation can result in anxiety and depression. As our daughters and sons progress into the later teen years, add in the pressures to excel academically, athletically and in leadership roles, and it is no wonder that today’s ultra-competitive environment is a breeding ground for greater rates of depression.
The need for better screening and effective treatment for teen and young adult depression is vital. When experiencing a depressive episode, teens have an increased risk for suicide, which is the third-leading cause of death among 15-19 year olds. The good news is that there are a variety of effective treatments today for depression that go beyond just medication, such as various psychotherapies, brain stimulation therapies, exercise, and alternative/complementary treatments like meditation and acupuncture.
If a parent is unable to convince a teen or young adult to go see a primary care provider or school psychologist for screening, there are many helpful resources online. For example, a website called Erika’s Lighthouse has a screening tool just for teens as does the site Healthy Place.
Another useful resource is the Buddy Project. Since 2013, this non-profit organization has been pairing teens with a buddy, based upon mutual interest and age. They aim to
prevent suicide and self-harm by pairing people as buddies and raising awareness for mental health. They primarily focus on children, teens and young adults across the globe by providing positivity, companionship, resources and education, in order to reduce the stigma of mental illness, bullying and negativity on social media.
Their website also provides an extensive list of hotlines for teens to call in the event they need help for any number of mental or physical health issues.
OK2Talk.org is a Tumblr community for teens and young adults struggling with mental health problems that encourages them to talk about what they’re experiencing by sharing their personal stories of recovery, tragedy, struggle or hope. Teens can “add their voice by sharing creative content such as poetry, inspirational quotes, photos, videos, song lyrics and messages of support in a safe, moderated space.”
As parents, we need to educate ourselves to look for the signs of depression in our teens, especially if there is a family history of mood disorders, or a child has faced any significant stress or trauma during their childhood. We must talk to our kids often about the genuine pressures they face, and the negative effects that social media can have on their self-perception.
We can all play a part in erasing the stigma of mental health conditions by talking honestly with our kids about needing and accepting help. When there is early detection, diagnosis and treatment, many teens experience great improvement. But if left untreated, depression can be devastating – both for those who suffer from it, and for their families.