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Home|Depression|How Can I Help My Depressed Teenager?

When a child is hurting, parents hurt, too. Nothing is more painful to a parent than witnessing their teen in emotional pain. Teenage depression is real. This condition differs from occasional bouts of the blues caused by an upsetting event or a hormonal shift, which tend to be transient events that resolve spontaneously. Clinically diagnosed depression in teens is the result of a persistent condition that interferes with normal daily functioning.

Parents want to know “How can I help my depressed teenager?” They are deeply concerned about the teen’s worsening state of mind, and the peripheral effects of depression, such as declining academic performance, excessive absences from school, weight changes, and other worrisome effects. Parents are in need of a game plan for their teen’s depressive disorder, a guide to help them manage this difficult situation.

Understanding Teen Depression

About 20% of American teenagers struggle with a bout of depression each year, according to statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health. This means that an estimated 5 million adolescents experience a depressive episode in a given year, with 3.7 million of those involving impairment. The rates of depression among teenage girls is over two times higher than boys, or 29.2% versus 11.5%. Unfortunately, only about 40% these teens ever receive treatment for the condition, which allows the problem to worsen and possibly follow them into adulthood.

The signs your teen may be struggling with depression include:

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once enjoyed
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness most of the time
  • A change in eating habits, leading to sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • A change in sleep habits, leading to excessive sleeping or insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Somatic symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, random aches and pains
  • Difficulty concentrating or remember things
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness
  • Restlessness
  • Thoughts of dying or suicide

When a cluster of these symptoms is present most of the time for more than two weeks, it is likely the teen is in the midst of a depressive episode and needs professional intervention.

Is Self-Harm a Sign of Teen Depression?

Self-harming behaviors are increasingly common among distress teens who use the practice of self-mutilation to help process problematic emotions, with about 16% of teens engaging in these behaviors. Self-harming behaviors might involve cutting, pinching, or scratching the skin, banging the head against a wall, or inflicting burns on themselves.

Self-harm could be a symptom of depression or anxiety, and is an attempt to relieve feelings of sadness, frustration, or a sense that their life is out of control. Signs a teen might be engaging in self-harm would be:

  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants in hot weather
  • Using makeup to hide the evidence of self-inflicted wounds
  • Exhibits the symptoms of depression (above) or anxiety
  • Visible repeated damage to the skin

Self-harming behaviors are a maladaptive response to psychological pain. The sooner the teen is evaluated for the underlying issue, the better the recovery outcome.

How Can I Help My Depressed Teenager?

When a parent asks, “How can I help my depressed teenager?” the best response would be to have them assessed by a doctor. The teen may have difficulty opening up to the parent, so having them discuss the issue with a family doctor is a good starting place. The doctor will first want to rule out a medical condition that might be contributing to the symptoms, so he or she will order labs and conduct a physical exam. If there is no health problem identified, the doctor will refer the teen to a psychiatrist to further investigate the problem.

When meeting with a psychiatrist, the first step is a conversation between the doctor and the teen, and the doctor and the parents. These conversations help provide clues as to the extent of the illness and any relevant information about recent life events that may be contributory. Following the interviews, the psychiatrist may utilize specific diagnostic tools, such as depression rating scales, to help them make an accurate diagnosis. From these sources of information, the doctor will make a diagnosis and create a treatment plan for the teen.

What Treatments Are Available?

Teens with major depressive disorder will likely be placed on a two-pronged treatment regimen involving antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. Antidepressants are to be carefully monitored, as there is some concern regarding the reports that these drugs might lead to suicidal thoughts and actions in approximately 2% of young patients. The medication takes about six weeks to become effective and the doctor may need to make adjustments as the trial ensues.

Psychotherapy is also referred to as talk therapy and involves private conversations between a licensed psychotherapist and the teen. Initially, these sessions may be scheduled weekly. The therapist will attempt to gain the trust of the teen and establish a good rapport so the teen will open up and allow for productive meetings. The teen may have experienced a traumatic event or other negative life events that may need to be processed in therapy. This will help the teen acquire new coping strategies, to heal, and to move forward.

Can Nutrition Help?

There is scientific evidence that nutrition can play a significant role in regulating mood. Often, the teen diet is rich in processed snacks, fast foods, and sugary beverages. These food choices are not optimal for maintaining mental wellness. Instead, it has been found that certain foods can improve brain functioning and emotion regulation. These include:

  • Omega 3 fatty acids. This can include salmon, tuna, and mackerel, walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds.
  • Whole grain breads and pastas
  • Fresh leafy greens, like kale and spinach
  • Fruits, such as citrus, berries, and bananas
  • Lean meat
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Nuts, seeds, and legumes

Teens should also be encouraged to get regular exercise, as activity helps produce endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, the brain chemicals that can boost mood and improve sleep quality. Parents wondering “How do I help my depressed teenager” should employ good nutrition and regular exercise along with the core treatment plan for treating teen depression.


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