The Signs of Clinical Depression in Teenagers

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The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in every five American teens is or was clinically depressed at some point. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry notes that teens with a history of trauma, learning disabilities or an anxiety disorder are most prone to developing major or clinical depression. This article will help you to be able to spot the signs of clinical depression in teenagers.

What is Clinical Depression?

Also called unipolar depression or major depressive disorder, clinical depression is one of the most severe forms of depression. Major depression in adults can appear episodically, such as after a very traumatic event like a death in the family, or it can be continuous throughout a patient’s life.

In both teens and adults, the main symptoms of clinical depression include a loss of interest in all activities; changes in sleep habits; chronic physical pains and suicidal thoughts. However, adults with major depression often are able to hold down jobs and families and may be good at hiding some of the more extremes of their emotions, at least until they reach a crisis point. Teens usually do not have this ability because they lack experience at hiding their emotions.

General Signs of Clinic Depression in Teenagers

Although each teen with depression shows a variation in differing symptoms, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has come up with a list of several general signs that families should not ignore. One teen may show some or all of these signs.

The teen will feel hopeless and may express that he or she is a failure or not good enough. Because of this hopelessness, the teen will stop bathing, or wearing clean clothes. If the teen normally keeps a messy room, then that is not a sign of depression. But if the teen normally keeps a clean room and suddenly lets it become slovenly, then this may indicate feelings of hopelessness. The teen will also reduce or stop communicating with friends.

The teen will have a drastic change in sleeping habits which will leave them tired all of the time. This can be due to hypersomnia (sleeping too much) or insomnia (not being able to sleep). These may also coincide with changes in eating behaviors.

The teen will complain of aches and pains and may start missing school far more than usual because of them. The teen may become irritable or burst into tears for seemingly no reason and may blame the aches and pains for this behavior.

Dangerous Signs

These are the crisis signs of clinical depression in teenagers. If the teen does not get help soon, they could suffer potentially fatal consequences from a chemical misadventure or from self-harm. Some teenagers begin to self-mutilate with razor blades or other sharp objects in order to help relief symptoms. This can lead to suicide.

  • Teens may try to self-medicate their symptoms by abusing legal or illegal drugs or alcohol. This can lead to more absences at school or a drastic drop in grades. The teen will often drop out of activities that he or she once was fanatical about.

  • Teens may run away from home or attempt to.

  • The teen may suddenly give away cherished possessions.

  • Teens may talk about death or how much better the world would be without them around. This is often a sign that they are planning on committing suicide, according to “The Family Intervention Guide to Mental Illness: Recognizing Symptoms & Getting Treatment” (New Harbinger Publications; 2007.)

If you are a teenager or know one who you think may be contemplating suicide, contact the suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433 - this is the National Suicide Hotline for the USA) or 1-800 999-9999 (Covenant House toll-free crisis hotline).


“The Family Intervention Guide to Mental Illness: Recognizing Symptoms & Getting Treatment.” Bodie Morey & Kim T. Mueser, Ph.D. New Harbinger Publications; 2007.

National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Children and Adolescents and Depression: Fact Sheet.”

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “Facts For Families: The Depressed Child.” May, 2008.

PsychCentral. “Teen Depression Symptoms.”