Teenage years are the most tumultuous period of our lives. Yet teenage years are perhaps the most formative period in most people’s lives. Given children are the future of our communities, it seems, as a society, we should strive to guide, support, nurture and monitor our teens in the best possible manners. It is especially relevant since ‘teenage troubles’ have gotten worse in recent years. This is generally attributed to negative changes in our culture, family structure and media.
Teenage depression, for instance, seems to have become more prevalent. One in four young women and one in seven young men have had a bout of depression by the time they entered adulthood. One in six high school students report they have seriously thought about suicide and one in twelve report having attempted suicide in the preceding year. The incidence of depression in teenage boys, especially, is increasing and is expected to equal that in teenage girls.
The red flags of teen depression are all around us, but the majority of society seems to completely miss them. For example, let us consider the tale of Johnny, a seventeen-year-old who took an overdose of cocaine in an apparent attempt to ‘feel good’ and had to be taken to the emergency room due to cardiac complications. What was happening to Johnny happens to millions of teenagers in this country, however only 20% of depressed teenagers receive any treatment. It seems Johnny had exhibited a drastic change in his mood, personality, and behavior over the past several weeks. This change consisted of some common symptoms of teenage depression such as irritability, academic problems, withdrawal from some friends, drug abuse, preoccupation with death and violence, poor energy, change in sleep patterns, diminished interest in pleasurable activities.
Other symptoms of teen depression include self-loathing, feelings of despair, unexplained aches and pains, increased sensitivity to criticism, changes in eating pattern, crying jags (often inexplicable), thoughts of suicide or homicide. Other behaviors resulting from teen depression include running away, skipping school, reckless or risk-taking behaviors, internet addiction, tormenting animals or children. Teens with these behaviors are often labeled ‘bad kids’ or some of these behaviors are written off as ‘typical teen behaviors.’ In fact, however, any or all of these symptoms experienced by Johnny and those listed above could be red flags for teen depression.
These ‘gatekeepers’ should also be made aware of common risk and precipitating factors for teen depression since we tend not to look for something we do not know about. These factor include a family history of depression (perhaps the most important risk factor), parental divorce or separation, absence of a parent(s), changes of puberty, pressure for sexual activity, death of a loved one, break-ups, feelings of ‘not fitting in’. So please be available to talk to a teenager if one brings up any of the relevant topics even during most inconvenient times, since that may be your last opportunity to recognize a red flag.
Once you recognize a red flag, please do not try to diagnose– this is potentially very dangerous and confusing and you will need to seek professional help immediately. Please always err on the side of caution
– a good professional will tell you if your teen has clinical depression or just situational blues.
Early recognition of teen depression is vital in not only ensuring the safety of the teenager and others, but is also essential for a better long term outcome for the teen.