While depression is a serious clinical condition, it is often missed in the teenage population. The main reason is that the signs and symptoms known to depression often occur in mild forms at the onset of pubescence. The teen years have long had the bad reputation for being the period in a person's life characterised by fluctuations in mood, irritability, rebellious behaviour, and the increased need for sleep often misinterpreted as lack of motivation. The important distinction to make is that the depressed feelings and behaviour displayed in the teen is experienced in such overwhelming levels that it impacts on every aspect of the teenager's functioning. Where rebellion and anger in normal teenage behaviour would usually present itself in one aspect of his or her functioning, depression is pervasive across the life areas.
Essentially the key to distinguishing depression from typical teen behaviour is to observe the frequency, duration and intensity of the signs of depression as well as the degree the signs or symptoms deviates from his or her normal pattern of interests and behaviour. Typically, major depression is diagnosed if a teenager displays depressed moods or irritability and a loss of interest in activities he or she usually engages in, for a period of at least 2 weeks, in conjunction with other symptoms such as weight loss and inability to concentrate. The onset of these symptoms usually increases in intensity with time, and the teen experiences feelings of loneliness, sadness or anger recurrently rather than episodically. Depression is also characterised by feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness, causing the teen to withdraw from social interactions in a period of development where social interaction is usually an important element in the teen's life. Another important factor in teen depression is when the teen lacks motivation or drive to pursue activities that are usually valued and meaningful in this age group. Other signs include frequent tearfulness or crying, withdrawal from friends and family, changes in eating and sleeping habits, restlessness and agitation, and thoughts of death and suicide.
So what causes teenage depression? Teenagers face many social pressures, as this is a crucial stage when teens are discovering their true identities and therefore measure their worth by their acceptance from their peers. The pressures of fitting in, discovering their sexuality, and identifying their direction in life can prove cumbersome to many teens. But when this challenging time in a teenager's life is compounded by perceived failure, rejection, or negative life events, a teen that is not very resilient can easily fall victim to the onset of teenage depression. Another area of difficulty in the teen years is the lacks of effective communication teenagers endure due to feelings of inadequacy and mistrust, particularly of the adults in their lives who should be a source of support during difficult times. Teenagers tend to alienate themselves from adults because they often have the perception that adults such as parents and teachers do not understand them. Thus, when teenagers face emotionally difficult times, and do not seek support, this can aggravate their feelings of loneliness and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can begin to set in.
Once you suspect the onset of depression in a teenager, the first thing you should do is to talk to the teenager about it. Be sure to approach the teen with a non-judgmental attitude and share your concerns in a caring way. Describe the specific signs of depression you have noticed that are concerning you and encourage the teenager to open up about his or her feelings. It is important to listen without lecturing, to validate his or her feelings, and to offer unconditional support. The next step is to seek the opinion of a health professional such as a general practitioner or a psychologist who can make a definitive diagnosis and assist in the management of the depression. It is important to remember that even if you have a vague suspicion of depression, it is vital that you address your suspicions rather that risking a depressed teen not receiving the support he or she needs.