Teen Depression

Teenage depression isn't just bad moods and occasional melancholy. Depression is a serious problem that impacts every aspect of a teen's life.


I recently received a phone call from a distressed mother, saying that her 15-year-old son, Robert, had stopped going to school, spent most of his time in his room, and had lost nearly 10 pounds in the past month. He had become nasty and sullen with his parents and 12-year-old sister  She explained that Robert was until now a B+ student, an avid soccer player, and co-president of the school debate team. He had many good friends with whom he spent time studying and going to the movies. She didn't understand what was going on with Robert and why his behavior had so dramatically changed in the past few months.  I asked the mother and Robert to come to my office for an initial evaluation.

Clinical teenage depression isn't just bad moods and occasional melancholy. Depression is a serious problem that impacts every aspect of a teen's life. Left untreated, teen depression can lead to problems at home and school, drug abuse, self-loathing — even irreversible tragedy such as homicidal violence or suicide. Fortunately, teenage depression can be treated, and as a concerned parent, teacher, or friend, there are many things you can do to help.  You can start by learning the symptoms of depression and expressing concern when you spot warning signs. Talking about the problem and offering support can go a long way toward getting your teenager back on track.

There are many misconceptions about teen depression as there are about teenagers in general. Yes, the teen years are tough, but most teens balance the requisite angst with good friendships, success in school or outside activities, and the development of a strong sense of self. 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.

Whether the incident of teen depression is actually increasing, or we're just becoming more aware of it, the fact is that depression strikes teenagers far more often than most people think. And although depression is highly treatable, experts say only 20% of depressed teens ever receive help. Unlike adults, who have the ability to seek assistance on their own, teenagers usually must rely on parents, teachers, or other caregivers to recognize their suffering and get them the treatment they vitally need.  So if you have an adolescent in your life, it is important to learn what teen depression looks like and what to do if you spot the warning signs.

These are the symptoms and signs of depression in teens:

  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Irritability, anger, hostility
  • Tearfulness or frequent crying
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits, e.g. eating or sleeping too little or too much
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Unexplained bodily aches and pains
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Excessive sensitivity to criticism
  • Excessive school tardiness and absenteeism
  • Marked decrease in academic performance, e.g. failure to complete homework assignments, and falling grades

If you're unsure if a teen in your life is depressed or just "being a teenager", consider how long the symptoms have been present, how severe they are, and how different the teen is acting from his or her usual self. While some ""growing pains" are to be expected as teenagers grapple with the challenges of growing up, dramatic, long-lasting changes in personality, mood, or behavior are red flags of a deeper problem.

The first thing you should do if you suspect depression is talk to your teen about it. In a loving and non-judgmental way, share your concerns with your son or daughter. Let him or her know what specific signs of depression you've noticed and why they worry you.  Then encourage your child to open up about what he or she is going through.  If your child claims nothing is wrong, but has no explanation for what is causing the depressed behavior, you should trust your instincts.  Remember that denial is a strong emotion. Teenagers may not believe that what they're experiencing is the result of depression.  If you see depression's warning signs, seek professional help from a therapist specifically trained and who specializes in working with adolescents.  Expect a discussion with the specialist you've chosen about treatment possibilities for your son or daughter.

There are a number of treatment options for depression in teenagers including individual, family, and group therapy. Talk therapy is often a good initial treatment for mild to moderate cases of depression.  Over the course of therapy, your teen's depression may subside or resolve.  If it doesn't, medication may be warranted.  However, antidepressants should only be used as part of a broader treatment plan.You may also want to consider your own therapy to handle the stresses and uncertainities of your child's illness.

After the initial session with Robert and his mother, I began to see Robert individually.  We discussed his hopes and dreams for the future, his self-perceived strengths and weaknesses, and his myriad feelings about his relationships with family members and friends.  I also had several sessions with Robert's mother and father, who talked about a family history of clinical depression on the father's side, Robert's childhood development, and the stresses that Robert's depression has placed upon them.  After preparing Robert for what he wanted to share with his parents, I facilitated a family session in which Robert expressed his feelings of unworthiness, guilt for acting so irritable, and anger towards his parents for not spending enough meaningful time with him.  The parents were able to really listen to Robert, be nonjudgmental, and express their love, care, and concern for Robert.

Robert continues to see me individually once a week and plans to join my coed teen support group in the fall.  And, Robert's parents are relieved to see the glimmer of their son's happiness return.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Leslie Yager July 24, 2012 at 12:01 PM
It's a shame only 20% get help, though depression is highly treatable. Another great post, Glenn.
Mary C. Palazzo July 24, 2012 at 08:26 PM
From childhood to adulthood children are not getting the attention they should from parents, especially the mother. Most mothers are too busy with other things and not giving too much attention to the ones who need it the most, children. Children need to be talked to and advised on how to behave. Children are brought up with too little attention and advise on how to behave. The right of parents to spanktheir children should never have been taken away. Children grow up to respect people and things if they are taught how to behave.
Margaret Callahan July 24, 2012 at 08:29 PM
Mary, you had me until "spanking"!
Glenn Wolff, LCSW July 25, 2012 at 02:07 AM
Thanks Leslie. Another issue may be family denial of a loved one's clinical depression. The stigmatization of mental illness exacts a heavy toll on not just the family, but society at large.
Glen K Dunbar July 26, 2012 at 01:24 PM
yea, look how I turned out. A mess !! Still am a mess!! What theses teens REALLY need is LOVE, TLC, and an easier time of it. Less homework and rules. Less stress and chores. Instead they are told to buck up and passed on from system to system. Very sad. I wish I knew how I cold help. Tough love is NO answer. Also, respect is earned and not bullied or demanded by the grown ups GLEN
J Bauer July 26, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Yeah! Lets spank the hell out of them! That'll teach em to cheer up!!
Canaanite July 26, 2012 at 03:44 PM
I am sure Mary wasn't advocating abuse! But the way kids are raised these days - with very little correction and a whole lot of apathy - is abominable, and no wonder they're prone to depression . . . They are coddled and allowed to get away with expecting to be the center of the universe in their homes, and then they have a rude awakening when they go out into the world and realize they're not. There is no healthy sense of shame instilled in them when they do something wrong . . . there is no humility - especially this day and age and especially in Fairfield County. They see the adults around them competing and going through life arrogant and shallow . . . No wonder they cannot become anything else as they grow older. Heavy expectations are placed on them, but they've not been taught to cope, only to pretend. I would feel crappy about myself too if I felt caught up in that relentless hamster wheel. I agree that parents are not hands on enough (it's not just mothers!!) . . . they are too busy and love to sigh and complain about how busy they are, but much of it is in their own control. One makes time for what's important, whether that's dinner together or a lazy Sunday with nothing to do but spend time together as a family instead of running around shuttling your kid to sporting games - as though that were going to yield higher dividends in their lives or make them feel more accomplished and proud of themselves.
J Bauer July 26, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Let me guess... things were better in the past, right? You should watch Woody Allen's movie, Midnight in Paris.
Glenn Wolff, LCSW July 27, 2012 at 01:26 AM
Thanks all for your comments. Just a few more ideas -- The causes of teen depression (and for that matter, depression across the life span) are not only socially and environmentally-based. Clinical depression is a disease, as is cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. There are organic causes to clinical depression including organic, hereditary, and physiological. In my private therapy practice, I am mindful of these other variables and thus do not pass judgment on the adolescent and his/her family. Doing otherwise, would be "blaming the victim." Rather than focusing on the teen or parents' deficits, I always reach for the client's strengths and positive qualities. This is the space where true and lasting change can occur, and that is, of course, what we want to see. Sincerely, Glenn Wolff, LCSW
Susan Komisar Hausman July 27, 2012 at 09:46 AM
Thanks for a great article, Glenn, on something so important.
Glen K Dunbar July 27, 2012 at 12:43 PM
Mr. Wolff I like your concept Sir. I have found over the years w/my own battles w/the depression and emotional illness is that nobody wants to give me a break. People are depressed because they want something or lack it. The way to cure it is to give them what they lack or take away the cause of the stress. A pill will only make them smile while they work away or do without? Pointless as far as I know. What do you think? Glen K Dunbar
Hollywood2 July 27, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Spanking? There is a club in New York for that.
Glenn Wolff, LCSW July 28, 2012 at 02:43 AM
Thanks Susan.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something