Depression in teens

Outlining the symptoms that teens may experience when they're depressed, and what you can do to help them.

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Our teenage years can be some of the most emotionally and mentally challenging years of our lives. Whilst it’s normal for everyone to go through ups and downs during this time, it’s important to be able to recognise when a teenager may be experiencing depression, so you can support them to get the help they need.

Here, we outline some of the symptoms of depression that teens may experience, how to spot the signs, and how parents, legal guardians, and teachers can help teens with depression.

What are the signs of depression in teens?

Depression can present itself differently in each person, so not everyone will experience the same symptoms. However, there are some common signs you can look out for if you think your teen is depressed.

Here are 12 signs of depression in teens that you should look out for:

  • Feeling sad and having a low mood
  • Being more tearful than usual
  • Being more irritable than usual
  • Getting angry or hostile over small matters
  • Sleeping excessively or struggling to sleep
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies they used to enjoy
  • Not wanting to have discussions about their future
  • Feeling very negative about themselves and appearing to be sensitive to comments that people make, perceiving them to be negative and personal
  • Changes in their appetite
  • Neglecting their appearance or personal hygiene
  • Neglecting their physical health
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts

Alongside these changes, you may have noticed that your teen’s attitude towards school and learning has also changed.

These changes can include:

  • Changes in how they spend their free time at school – they may spend more time on their own or be less interactive with their normal friendship group
  • A decrease in concentration and/or effort
  • A noticeable decline in their academic performance
  • Not wanting to discuss exams/university applications, and becoming upset when this occurs
  • Walking out of lessons when this is unusual for them
  • Dropping out of extra-curricular activities they used to enjoy

These symptoms can vary in intensity and a teen can have good and bad days. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between the symptoms of depression and the normal changes you go through as a teenager, but it’s important to talk to your teen and understand exactly how they’re feeling. Not only will this help you understand their mood, but they'll feel some relief just by talking to someone they trust. This teenage depression guide can be helpful in understanding the symptoms of teenage depression and certain reactions that teenagers with depression may have.

Helping a teen with depression

While it can be upsetting to watch a teenager you care about struggle with their mental health, there are a number of things you can do to support them.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg provides a few tips on how you can handle teenage depression:

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, shares a few tips on how you can help a teen struggling with depression:

  • Remind your child that you love them unconditionally
  • Remind your child that it's normal to experience strong emotions such as sadness, anger, fright and anxiety, but these don't last forever
  • Encourage them to talk to you about how they're feeling and explain you've felt like that too in times of stress
  • Let your child know they can always contact a supportive charity such as ChildLine or the Samaritans anonymously by telephone or via a web chat if they need a confidential discussion
  • Encourage your child to 'stop their thought train and get off it'. Encourage them to build a brick wall, metaphorically, between themselves and their stressful thoughts

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg is an expert in her field and you can read more about her positive parenting strategies here.

Advice for parents with depressed teens

A good place to start is to calmly explain to your teenager that you’re worried about them. By approaching this conversation in a calm and non-confrontational way, this makes it more likely that they’ll feel comfortable enough to open up to you about how they’re feeling.

You could offer to spend some quality time together doing something that your teenager would usually enjoy. While you’re both engaged in the activity, you might get further opportunities to talk to them about what they’re going through and how they’re feeling. Having activities planned can also give them something to look forward to.

If you’re worried that your teenager is at risk of harming themselves, explain to them that you want to support them in a way they feel comfortable with. There are some signs of self-harm you can look out for if you suspect your teen has already hurt themselves, and if this is the case, seek support as soon as possible.

It’s also worth discussing a risk communication system with them – this could be a traffic light system. You could encourage them to let you know the colour that represents their risk each morning and evening, communicated either verbally or via a text if they feel more comfortable doing this. Throughout this exercise, keeping the lines of communication open is key.

Advice for teachers dealing with teenage depression

There are a number of things you can do to support someone with teenage depression, enabling their time at school to be as comfortable and stress-free as possible.

As an initial step, it can be helpful to interact with the teenager away from their peers. This will avoid making them feel uncomfortable if they aren’t ready to discuss their depression with their friends yet. It’s also important to clarify confidentiality early on, and who you’re able to express any concerns to.

It can also be useful to explain some of the sources of support that they have access to, both in and outside school. Let them know that you’re always there to listen to them at school if they’re struggling with their mood, and also point them in the right direction for any other on-site support they can access. This might be a school nurse or someone within the pastoral team. You could also offer them the contact details for external support like Samaritans and Childline, explaining to them that these organisations provide 24-hour support and can be accessed via online chat or by phone.

Depression treatment for teens

If you think your teen is struggling with teenage depression, it’s important to get them the support and help they need.

The first step you can take is to make an appointment for them to see a medical professional or use private CAMHS, a service for people under the age of 18. This could be your GP or a child and adolescent consultant here at Priory. During an initial assessment, a mental health expert will be able to determine the severity of the depression your teen is struggling with and how best to treat it.

It’s likely that a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) will be recommended as part of a treatment plan, helping your child to talk about their mood, thoughts, and behaviours. This talking therapy will provide them with the skills to understand and challenge unhelpful thoughts and feelings. In some cases, antidepressant medication may be prescribed, depending on the type of depression your teen is struggling with.

Depending on the severity of their depression and the symptoms your teen is struggling with, depression treatment can be offered on both an inpatient and outpatient basis, but this is something a mental health professional can talk to you about based on your teen's individual needs.

Ultimately, the most important message to get across to teenagers is that their depression is entirely treatable. However, it can be a serious mental illness, which is why it’s so important that they get the help they need. We can help young people to overcome their symptoms and get back on track.

Page clinically reviewed by Zhila Alfrouz (BA, MA, BACP), CBT Therapist/Counsellor at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester.

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