Depression in adolescents, difficulties in diagnosing teen depression, treatment options, and hope for parents of depressed teenagers
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When Are Teens Most at Risk for Developing Depression?

By Meghan Vivo

Depression can strike at any age or stage of life, but there are certain factors that are more strongly associated with the development of depression than others.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), up to one in 12 American teenagers suffers from depression, and three times as many will experience depression by age 18. Depression is twice as common in teen girls as it is in teen boys and often coincides with behavioral, attention and learning disorders.

Depressed teens often go on to become depressed college students. A study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health found that college students with depression are twice as likely as their classmates to drop out of school.

Depressed adolescents are also more likely to have major depression, anxiety disorders and eating disorders as adults, a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests. They are also more likely to smoke cigarettes, self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, and engage in other risky behaviors like early sexual activity.

Teens at High Risk of Depression

Depression, like most forms of mental illness, is complex and can’t be narrowed to a single cause or trigger. But there are a number of risk factors that contribute to the development of depression, including:

Family History of Depression. Depression tends to run in families. While not everyone with a genetic predisposition develops depression, there is an increased risk for developing depression when a parent, grandparent or other close family member has the mental illness. A family history of depression puts teens at a higher risk when a parent is actively suffering from episodes of depression. In fact, studies suggest that teens whose parents are depressed are six times more likely than their peers to become depressed themselves.

Difficult Life Events. Certain environmental factors can trigger a depressive episode, such as the loss of a loved one, a parent’s divorce, academic and social pressures, and health problems, as can any form of significant or chronic stress. Adolescents, in particular, are heavily impacted by school performance, social status with peers, sexual orientation and family life.

Personality Traits. Some scientists believe that personality traits such as low self-esteem and a pessimistic outlook are linked to depression. These traits are sometimes shaped by childhood experiences such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse; having an alcoholic parent; being the victim of violence, harassment or bullying; or family conflict.

Is Your Teen Depressed?

Depression presents differently in different people. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teens tend to display the following symptoms of depression:

  • Frequent sadness or crying
  • Less interest in or ability to enjoy previously satisfying activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Persistent boredom or low energy
  • Social isolation or difficulty with relationships
  • Low self-esteem and guilt
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger or hostility
  • Frequent physical illnesses, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Running away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior

Other symptoms may include lack of motivation, withdrawing from family and friends, rebellious or criminal behavior, use of alcohol or drugs, and promiscuous sexual activity.

If your teens experience any of these symptoms for at least two weeks and struggle to complete everyday activities at home or in school, they may be suffering from clinical depression.

Also beware of statements like, “Nothing will ever get better,” “I wish I was never born,” “I’m a failure,” “I can’t do anything right” and “Nobody loves me or cares about me,” as signs of teen depression. These feelings can become overwhelming, leading teens to give up on themselves, on relationships and on life in general.

Treating Teen Depression

There are a number of ways teens can cope with negative feelings to try to prevent major depression. One approach is to get involved in sports, a part-time job, a volunteer organization or other activities in order to make new friends, develop a stronger self-esteem and have fun.

Speaking to a trusted adult, positive group of peers or a therapist are also productive ways of coping with difficult emotions. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective ways to prevent depression in high-risk teens.

CBT helps teens look at their problems more realistically and challenge their negative beliefs rather than taking a more dramatic “all or nothing” approach. Group CBT sessions are particularly helpful, according to the study, as teens have the opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other and get honest feedback from peers.

If talking it out one or two hours a week isn’t relieving some of the symptoms of depression, more intensive depression treatment may be necessary. Residential programs, therapeutic boarding schools and wilderness therapy programs are all excellent options for teens struggling with depression. These programs foster positive peer relationships, provide intensive counseling so teens understand why they are depressed and learn how to cope, and help teens reconnect with their passions and interests.

Depression can be life-threatening, and few teens will seek treatment on their own. Thus, it is critical for parents, friends and loved ones to identify the symptoms of depression early on and find treatment so teens can learn skills to manage their symptoms before major depression strikes.

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