Jun 19th 2023
Adolescence can be a difficult time when young people go through significant physical, social, and emotional changes. Going through periods of emotional reactivity and/or emotional dysregulation is common in adolescence, but low mood and other psychological symptoms that persist for longer than two weeks may be a sign of ‘teen depression’.
Major depressive disorder, commonly referred to as clinical depression, is a very common mental health problem characterized by low mood, lack of interest in things that used to bring people pleasure, and a sense of hopelessness. Depression in teens isn’t clinically different than depression in adults, though symptoms might look a little different in teenagers.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , used by mental health professionals in the US to diagnose mental health problems, the symptoms of depression are:
In teenagers, some of these symptoms may present as moodiness, refusal to attend school, a drop in academic achievement, substance abuse, and behavioral problems.
Teenagers have a lot to navigate that can affect their mental health, including school-related stress, friendships and relationships, self-esteem issues, body confidence, and family problems. Today’s young people are also dealing with the unique pressures of modern life, such as social media, and the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Research has identified factors that appear to lessen the risk of depression. A high level of intelligence appears to offer some resilience to adolescent depression. Also, building a young person’s ability to regulate their emotions by developing coping skills and thought processes can help. Good parental relationships and a warm, welcoming home life seem to reduce the risk of depression even in families where there is a history of depression.
A depression diagnosis is done by a doctor or other mental health professional following a psychological evaluation. This will include a discussion about symptoms and signs of depression, a review of the person’s medical history, and may involve completing a questionnaire.
Someone can be diagnosed with depression if they experience five or more of the symptoms listed above for at least two weeks. At least one of the symptoms needs to be either low mood or a loss of pleasure in usual activities.
The doctor will rule out other causes such as physical health problems or other mental health conditions first. They will also consider whether symptoms are merely a normal response to a difficult life event such as bereavement.
The diagnosis may specify whether the depression is mild, moderate, or severe.
The main treatments for teenage depression are medication and therapy. There are some differences between the treatment options offered to teenagers and adults. For example, older types of antidepressants aren’t usually considered suitable for young people. 
For mild depression, lifestyle changes such as improving sleep, exercise, and diet, together with a short course of therapy, may be sufficient. For moderate to severe depression, it is more likely that a combination of therapy and medication is needed.
The main therapy options for teen depression are:
It can be difficult and distressing watching your child struggle with depression but there are things you can do to help, whether they are receiving professional help or not.
The risk of suicide is higher in people – including teenagers – with depression and is the second most common cause of death in young people aged 15-24. If you believe your child might be experiencing suicidal thoughts, do not ignore them.
If you or someone you know is at risk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 (800) 273-8255. If it is an emergency, call 911. Please see our emergency resources here.
Depression is a very common mental health problem. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2020 more than 4 million adolescents 12-17 year olds in the United States had at least one episode of major depression, which is 17% of young people in this age group.
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