Depression in adolescents, difficulties in diagnosing teen depression, treatment options, and hope for parents of depressed teenagers
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How to Help Your Depressed Teen

By Jill Gonzalez

Many people do not take the problem of teenage depression seriously. In fact, many people do not even believe that teenagers can actually get depressed.

This conflict stems from the fact that the majority of adults do not understand what teenage depression is. The reality is that it is much more than a sullen mood and bouts of sadness. It is an actual medical condition that can have devastating, permanent effects on a teenager's life.

Defining Teenage Depression

Depression is a mental illness that can occur in teenagers in much the same way that it manifests itself in adults. A significant difference is that teens are dependent on their parents or other caregivers to provide the medical attention they need, whereas adults are free to go to the doctor on their own.

In many cases, parents or other adults fail to acknowledge the fact that teenagers can, and do, get depressed. They tend to write off the moody, sullen teenager as acting out or one who is simply unhappy about something.

With depression, the brain's neurotransmitters that regulate mood may sometimes run low. The result can be anxiety, stress and depression. When people find themselves feeling sad or down for no apparent reason, the odds are pretty good that they are suffering from an imbalance with their neurotransmitters. In people who are genetically predisposed to this type of chemical imbalance, depression is far more likely to appear at some point.

Medical professionals believe that depression occurs in teens far more often than we realize but parents fail to recognize the symptoms in their children. While it is impossible to know the exact number of teenagers that suffer from depression, researchers believe that only about 20 percent of depressed teens ever receive any type of help for their condition.

Signs and Symptoms of Teen Depression

It is not always easy to spot the presence of depression in teenagers. With all of the dramatic changes that they experience as they go through the lengthy transition to adulthood, it can be difficult to distinguish between a foul mood and actual depression. Additionally, some teens exhibit behaviors such as aggression, irritability and rage rather than sadness, which makes a diagnosis even more complex.

The following signs and symptoms are good indicators that a teenager may be suffering from depression, particularly if they exhibit these symptoms consistently over an extended period of time:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent crying
  • Feelings of hopelessness or sadness
  • Withdrawal from family and/or friends
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Loss of motivation
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Anger, irritability or hostility

When analyzing the signs or symptoms that teenagers may be exhibiting, it is important to realize that depression can look quite different in people of this age group than it does in adults. With teenagers, certain symptoms are likely to be present that are not normally found in depressed adults:

  • Excessive sensitivity to criticism. Depressed teens tend to have strong feelings of worthlessness, which makes them highly sensitive to criticism, failure and rejection.
  • Angry or irritable mood. Instead of being sad like most adults with depression, teens tend to be irritable, grumpy, hostile and frustrated.
  • Withdrawing from some people. Adults are more prone to isolate themselves from everyone when they are depressed, but teenagers tend to withdraw more selectively. With teenagers, they may start hanging out with different types of people, pulling away from their parents or socialize less frequently than they normally do.
  • Mysterious aches and pains. Teenagers who are suffering from depression often complain of having headaches and stomachaches. If a physical examination does not reveal a particular reason for the presence of these symptoms, it is very likely that depression could be the root cause.

If your teenager exhibits the signs and symptoms of depression, particularly if their behavior remains altered for longer than a few days, it would be wise to seek depression treatment.

Teen Depression Treatment Options

If you suspect that your teenager may be depressed, the first thing you should do is have your child examined by your doctor. Physical examinations are always the first step in screening teens for depression so that other possible causes can be ruled out.

If physical conditions are eliminated as possible reasons to explain your teenager's symptoms, your doctor can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in treating adolescent depression. It is always a good idea to choose a mental health professional with experience and training in treating children and teens because of the complexity involved in properly diagnosing depressed teenagers.

Simply prescribing teens an antidepressant is not good enough as a stand-alone treatment. Many mental health professionals strongly recommend therapy for all depressed teens without using antidepressant medications because the long-term effects of these medications on the developing adolescent brain are not completely understood.

If outpatient therapy for your teen’s depression does not improve their mood, you may need to seek help at an adolescent residential treatment center that specializes in depression. At these centers, your teen will be provided an individualized treatment plan that addresses both their depression and any underlying issues that triggered it. Through individual and group therapy in a nurturing environment, your teen can tackle their depression while learning healthy coping mechanisms that will lessen the chances of them dealing with depression ever again.

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