Depression is a general term for a mental health disorder that falls under the category of mood disorders. Depression is often used as a blanket term for disorders that cause major depressive episodes, low mood, and a loss of interest in activities. However, several different mood disorders can cause depressive symptoms. The most common are major depressive disorder (MDD) and persistent depressive disorder (PPD).
Depression can affect people of all ages, including teens and adolescents. Teen depression can lead to various consequences, including health issues and social problems. You can learn more here about the signs of addiction and how it can be treated.
What Is Depression?
Mood disorders affect your emotions and a general feeling of well-being. A mood that is too high is called mania, which can occur in disorders like bipolar disorder. Depression is a very low mood. It’s common to experience highs and lows throughout life, but if your moods start to disrupt your life in a significant way, you may have a mood disorder. Depression can affect your life in many ways that make it difficult to attend to daily responsibilities or pursue positive goals.
Depression can sap you of your energy, disrupt your sleep, and make you feel worthless. Depressive symptoms can even make it challenging for you to take care of yourself, leading to poor hygiene, fluctuating weight, and health issues. When your mood starts to disrupt your life, it indicates a disorder that needs to be addressed.
Depression can affect people of all ages, but it may manifest in adolescents differently than it does in adults. In teens, depression can be caused by common life events, or it may not seem to have a cause at all. It’s often difficult to identify a mental health disorder like depression in teens because they are already going through several normal life changes. However, teens can experience depression, and it can be effectively treated.
Types of Mood Disorders
- Major depression. Major depression is characterized by major depressive episodes that last for a few weeks and then go away for a while. During an episode, you will experience depression symptoms on most days during a period of at least two weeks. After a depressive episode ends, you may experience a normal mood for weeks or months before symptoms return again.
- Persistent depression. Persistent depression symptoms aren’t usually as intense as major depression symptoms, but it lasts longer. In persistent depression, you will experience mild-to-moderate depression symptoms for up to two years before they dissipate. This may also be called dysthymia or chronic depression.
- Bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by extreme moods. You may shift between manic episodes and low moods or between depressive episodes and high moods. Bipolar disorder doesn’t necessarily refer to mood swings. Instead, episodes of high and low moods may last several weeks.
- Seasonal depression. Also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), seasonal depression involves depressive symptoms that occur around the same time each year. They most commonly occur during the winter and may be connected to cold, dark winter months. Seasonal depression is usually identified when depressive symptoms occur around the same time for at least two years in a row.
- Perinatal depression. Perinatal depression involves depression that occurs in mothers around pregnancy and birth. Pregnancy can involve chemical and hormonal changes in the body, coupled with a major lifestyle change that can lead to mental health issues like depression.
- Atypical depression. Atypical depression refers to depressive symptoms that go away when something positive in your life occurs. Generally, depression involves periods of low mood that don’t respond to normal life events that might lift your mood. This may also be called depression with atypical features.
- Situational depression. Situational depression is depression that occurs due to negative events in your life. While it’s normal for you to experience sadness and disappointment in response to negative events, situational depression can cause extremely low moods that seriously disrupt your life.
How Common Is Depression Among Teens?
Depression is one of the most common mental health problems in the United States after anxiety disorders. Between the ages of 15 and 44, major depressive disorder is the most common cause of disability in the United States. It’s thought to affect more than 16.1 million adults in the country, and that’s just one type of mood disorder. The next most common mood disorder, persistent depressive disorder, affects about 3.3 million adults per year.
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17 saw an increase in major depressive episodes (MDE) and MDEs with severe impairment between 2006 and 2019. In that time period, rates of major depressive episodes more than doubled. In 2019, 3.8 million adolescents reported experiencing MDEs within the past year. Among these, 2.7 million adolescents reported experiencing major depressive episodes with severe impairments within the past year of the survey. The survey also reported an increasing trend in suicide attempts among teens.
The statistics show a worrying increase in teen mental health problems and depression. For that reason, it’s important for teens to have open access to mental health treatment and suicide prevention.
How Is Depression Diagnosed in Teens?
Depression is diagnosed with a psychological evaluation, but it’s also good to go through medical exams and blood tests to get an accurate diagnosis. While there is no medical test that can identify depression, medical exams may be able to rule out other possible causes for the symptoms you’re experiencing.
Doctors and therapists typically used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM lists nine symptoms that point to a major depressive episode along with some other qualifiers. Children, teens, and adults may go through many of the same symptoms during depression. However, teens and adolescents may experience some symptoms uniquely.
Here are the nine symptoms of depression, according to the fifth edition of the DSM. To qualify as a major depressive episode, you have to experience five of the nine symptoms, and at least one of them has to be depressed mood or loss of interest in activities.
- Depressed mood. Depression usually comes with a low mood that involves sadness and the sense that something isn’t right. In adolescents, this can come out as irritability or agitation.
- Loss of interest in activities. Losing interest in one or two activities is normal, but losing interest in almost all activities may be a depression symptom. This can be reported by the depressed teen or observed by someone else.
- Unintentional weight changes. It’s normal to experience some weight change, but significant weight changes involve losing or gaining more than 5 percent of your body weight in a month. For adolescents who are still growing, failing to meet normal weight gains could be a symptom.
- Sleep disturbances. Sleep problems can include insomnia or difficulty staying asleep through the night. It may also involve hypersomnia, which is sleeping more than usual.
- Psychomotor changes. Psychomotor changes involve strange movements that don’t serve a purpose, like pacing, foot-tapping, or delayed movements.
- Low energy. Tiredness and fatigue are physical symptoms of depression. Low energy can also cause you to slow down as you go through your regular routine.
- Worthlessness or guilt. Depression can cause you to feel worthless and lower your self-esteem. You may also feel guilty to the point that it’s inappropriate or excessive. Guilt may also be delusional. The DSM also points out that guilt is not just guilt about being sick or mentally ill.
- Impaired thinking or concentration. It may be difficult to make decisions, focus on tasks, or think clearly. You may feel you’re in a brain fog. This symptom can be self-reported or noticed by others.
- Recurrent thoughts of death. This symptom goes beyond a fear of dying. You may think about dying, wish you were dead, or think about suicide. In some cases, people attempt suicide.
Other factors also need to be met for someone to be diagnosed with a major depressive episode, the DSM advises. For it to be considered a disorder, symptoms have to cause clinically significant impairment in your life. The symptoms can’t be better explained by other things like drug use or a physiological disease. For you to have major depressive disorder, you can’t also experience manic episodes, which might be better explained by bipolar disorder. Also, symptoms must not be better explained by schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, which can sometimes come with depressive symptoms.
What Causes Depression?
There are several potential causes of depression. Like most mental health disorders, depression is likely caused by several factors working together rather than one individual problem. Depression is often associated with a chemical imbalance in the brain, but it may be more complex than that. Factors can include:
- Biological differences. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with depression have noticeable differences in their brains when compared to people without depression. We still don’t know how significant those changes are in causing depression, but they may be an important factor.
- Brain chemistry. Chemicals in your brain that serve as chemical messengers are called neurotransmitters. Changes in the levels of these chemicals or the receptors that bind with them can profoundly affect your nervous system, affecting things like your emotions, mood, and energy levels.
- Genetics. Genetics refers to inherited traits that are passed down from your parents and grandparents. Many mental health issues, including depression, seem to have a genetic component. That means you may have a higher likelihood of depression if a parent or grandparent had it.
- Hormones. Hormones can significantly impact your mood and emotions. They can cause depression during periods of hormonal change like pregnancy or menopause. But teens may experience hormonal changes during puberty that cause depressive symptoms.
Does Social Media Cause Depression?
Social media is often associated with negative effects on teens and adolescents. But does social media cause mental health issues like depression in teens? In 2017, a study of more than 500,000 eighth-graders found that the rate of teens experiencing depressive symptoms increased by 33% between 2010 and 2015. At the same time, exposure to social media through smartphones and other technologies increased. By 2015, 92% of teens and young adults had a smartphone. It’s important to note that the increase in smartphones and social media correlates to the increase in depressive symptoms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean social media caused the increase.
Still, social media may be a factor in mental health issues. One possible explanation is that social media offers more online connections that don’t provide as deep a connection as in-person interactions. Another cause may be social media’s negative byproducts, rather than social media itself, like cyberbullying or lifestyle comparison.
However, social media may also offer benefits like connecting people in geographically isolated areas or people who don’t fit in with local communities. Still, the growth of social media over the past few decades, along with the growth of mental health issues among teens, has many researchers continuing to investigate the effects of technology on mental health.
What Are the Signs of Depression in Teens?
If you’re the parent or guardian of a teenager, it can be difficult to determine if changes in emotions or behaviors are caused by normal development or a mental health issue. However, there may be emotional and behavioral changes that depression causes that aren’t typical in healthy development.
The two hallmark signs of depression are a low mood and a loss of interest in typical activities. It may be difficult to notice changes in someone’s mood at first, but a low mood that persists for two weeks may be a sign of depression or another mental health issue. A loss of interest in activities is also common in teens, but when someone loses interest in all activities at once, there may be a problem.
Other emotional changes may involve irritability, feelings of worthlessness, focus issues, feeling empty, and low self-esteem. You may notice crying spells that occur for no apparent reason. It’s also common to fixate on past mistakes or rejections.
Behavioral changes can include fatigue or low energy, insomnia, changes in appetite, sudden changes in weight, isolation, complaints of body aches, disruptive behavior, and self-harm. Some of these signs, like low energy, may be common on a day-to-day basis, but when they persist for more than a week, they may point to a problem.
Because it can be hard to tell between what’s normal and what’s not, it’s important to talk to your teen to find out if they’re struggling with depression. If you are a teen, it’s important to seek help when you feel depressed or overwhelmed. Depression feels like it will never end, but it’s a very treatable disorder.
Suicide Warning Signs in Depressed Teens
Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are serious problems among people struggling with severe depression. Teen suicide has been a growing problem over the past several years. Teens and their caretakers should feel free to address the topic of suicide and reach out for help when they need it. Here are some suicide warning signs:
Sudden or Extreme Changes
Mental health problems like depression can cause changes to your personality, interests, and friend groups. Changes can point to a mood disorder, but as it gets worse, it could be a suicide warning sign. Changes can include:
- Changes in sleeping habits like hypersomnia or insomnia
- Negative personality changes
- Changes in eating habits that lead to weight fluctuation
- Violent outbursts or behavior
- Restless, panicked, or agitated behavior
- Social isolation
- Complete apathy
- Problems at school
Risk-taking is a common sign of several mental and behavioral health issues. But it can be a sign of severe depression. If you feel hopeless or worthless, you may be apathetic about your future or personal safety. Risk-taking behaviors can include:
- Risky sexual behavior
- Getting into trouble
- Skipping school
- Legal trouble
- Drinking or drug use
- Reckless driving
Self-harm and suicide are often related, but they aren’t the same thing. Self-harm refers to cutting or inflicting pain on yourself that’s not intended to end your life. People who practice self-harm often say they do it to feel something and that it provides a sense of release. It may be that emotional pain is hard to process, and physical pain feels like a way to get it out. However, self-harm can sometimes escalate into suicide or accidental death. It may be a precursor to suicide if left unaddressed.
Talking About Death
Talking about death is one of the most common warning signs of suicide. A teen who’s thinking about suicide may think about dying, how they might want to die or make suicidal plans. In some cases, talking about it is a way for a teen to bring up the subject to draw attention to problems they’re going through. Even joking about suicide may be a sign of suicidal ideation.
Depression and Co-occurring Disorders Among Teens
Depressive disorders may come with other problems like other mental disorders and physical problems. In some cases, other issues in your life may lead to depression symptoms, or they may trigger pre-existing mood disorders. When addressing depression in a teen, it may be necessary to address other mental and physical health problems that can complicate their mood disorder.
Co-occurring disorders should be addressed at the same time. If one is treated while the other is ignored, the untreated disorder can complicate attempts to address the other. Here are some common mental and physical issues associated with depression:
- Anxiety. Anxiety may seem like the opposite of depression since it causes a hypervigilant or agitated mood rather than a low mood. However, anxiety and depression may be connected. Anxiety disorders can significantly disrupt your life, which can make you feel guilty, sad, or worthless. In many cases, these issues need to be addressed at the same time.
- Substance use disorders. Substance use disorders (SUDs) are common among people with mental health problems. About half of people with mental health issues also have substance use disorders. In many cases, people use drugs or alcohol to cope with mental health problems like depression. However, when drug and alcohol use becomes an addiction, it makes mental health problems worse, especially among teens.
- Physical injuries. Physical injuries can present a serious setback to teens. Teens often have goals for their high school years that can be hindered by months of dealing with a broken bone or another injury. Pain and disappointment also can come with depressive feelings.
- Sleep disorders. Sleep is essential for physical and mental health. A lack of sleep can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. It can also cause you to struggle at work or at school, which can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. Issues like insomnia often occur alongside depression.
- ADHD. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a common developmental disorder that starts at a young age. If left untreated, it can lead to significant impairments at school and in social interactions. Teens who have ADHD can develop depressive symptoms.
- Chronic diseases. Being diagnosed with a chronic disease can be frightening, especially for an adolescent. Dealing with an ongoing disease can put stress on a teen, which can lead to mental health problems. For that reason, it’s important to address mental health in adolescents diagnosed with chronic health problems.
- Chronic pain. Several physical issues can cause chronic pain, which can be distressing for adults and teens. Chronic pain from physical diseases can lead to mental health problems. But depression itself can cause long-lasting aches and pains.
How to Help a Depressed Teenager
If a teen is dealing with depression, help is available to treat the mental health disorder. Several approaches can be used to address depression, including medications and therapy options.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the leading pharmacological approaches to treating depression. They help increase your levels of serotonin, which is an important chemical in your brain that’s related to mood regulation. If depression is causing delusions or other psychotic symptoms, antipsychotic medications can be used. If you struggle with bipolar disorder, you may need a mood stabilizer.
There are many therapy options that can help you address mood disorders. General talk therapy can help you process your depression and its potential causes. Behavioral therapies can help you address your thoughts and behaviors and how they relate to your coping responses. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you identify triggers and learn to develop effective coping responses to stress in your life.