Depression amongst children and teenagers is becoming more and more common. Being a child or teenager is not easy, especially when there is bullying going on at school and on the internet, family financial problems, break-up or divorce of parents, etc. Depression is something that should be taking seriously, as it could have many consequences. Sometimes, parents ignore mental health issues/signs, but will take physical health issues/signs more serious. Mental health issues are just as important as physical health issues.
One of the most serious behavioral problems among troubled teenagers is depression. It is essential that parents recognize when a pre-adolescent or adolescent child is depressed, because treatment is more effective with early intervention. The more serious consequence of untreated depression can be risk of suicide. Therefore, any indication that a child has been depressed for six months or more should be treated in the same way you would if you saw signs of physical disease in that child.
Occasional bad moods or acting out is to be expected, but depression is something different. Depression can destroy the very essence of a teenager’s personality, causing an overwhelming sense of sadness, despair, or anger. One of the obstacles facing parents is that the child may simply seem like what many believe is a “normal teen” – angry, withdrawn, irritable, isolated or a loner, etc. These behaviors when isolated to events or short periods of time may well be the growing pains of adolescence, but when they extend beyond a six-month period and don’t seem to go away, parents need to seek intervention before more serious indications arise.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents and teenagers. For every teen suicide death, experts estimate there are 10 other teen suicide attempts. Teen girls and boys are both at risk for suicide. Teen girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but teenage boys are four to five times more likely to die by suicide. Over half of teen suicide deaths are inflicted by guns.
Major depressive disorder is a serious condition characterized by one or more major depressive episodes. In children and adolescents, an episode lasts on average from 7 to 9 months (Birmaher et al., 1996a, 1996b). Depressed children are sad, they lose interest in activities that used to please them, and they criticize themselves and feel that others criticize them. They feel unloved, pessimistic, or even hopeless about the future; they think that life is not worth living, and thoughts of suicide may be present. Depressed children and adolescents are often irritable, and their irritability may lead to aggressive behavior. They are indecisive, have problems concentrating, and may lack energy or motivation; they may neglect their appearance and hygiene; and their normal sleep patterns are disturbed (DSM-V).
The typical signs of depression are:
- Child/Teen feels “low” most of the time
- Child/Teen is irritable
- Weight loss or weight gain (more than 10% of normal weight)
- Insomnia or sleeplessness, or the opposite, excessive need for sleep
- Low energy
- Child/Teen says things that indicate low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts, ideation, or threats (with or without a plan)
- Drop in grades
- Drop in social activities, interactions with peers and family, or sudden change in friends
- Frequent bouts of crying, often “for no reason”
Several factors increase the risk that a child/teen will attempt suicide:
- Depression or feelings of loneliness or helplessness
- Alcohol or drug addiction
- A family history of abuse, suicide, or violence
- Previous suicide attempts; almost half of teens who commit suicide had attempted suicide previously.
- A recent loss such as a death, break-up, or parents’ divorce, illness or disability
- Stress over school, relationships, performance expectations, etc.
- Fear of ridicule for getting help for problems
- Being bullied or being a bully
- Access to firearms or other lethal objects
Tips for talking to a depressed child/teen:
- Offer support – Let depressed children/teenagers know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally. Hold back from asking a lot of questions (teenagers don’t like to feel patronized or crowded), but make it clear that you’re ready and willing to provide whatever support they need.
- Be gentle but persistent – Don’t give up if your adolescent shuts you out at first. Talking about depression can be very tough for children/teens. Be respectful of your child’s comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.
- Listen without lecturing – Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your child/teenager begins to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. Avoid offering unsolicited advice or ultimatums as well.
- Validate feelings – Don’t try to talk teens out of their depression, even if their feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Simply acknowledge the pain and sadness they are feeling. If you don’t, they will feel like you don’t take their emotions seriously.
If your child or teenager seems stuck in a pattern that includes some of these behaviors, for more than six months, it is time to seek therapy and make sure your child is properly treated should he or she be suffering from depression. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, call 911 or take the person to the emergency room immediately. Call a suicide prevention hotline, such as 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433), or a local suicide prevention hotline, such as Behavioral Health Link (if you are in Georgia) at 1-800-715-4225, or mental health centers to help someone who is thinking about suicide.