Spotlight on the Signs of Teenage Depression

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What do teens have to be depressed about?

Teenagers are just beginning to experience life as adults. Romantic relationships, decisions about school and career, changing family relationships and changing social obligations are just a few of the structural changes transforming their lives, all of which create emotional pressures and increase the danger of developing depression.

In any one given year 6.7% of US adults and nearly 10% of 13 to 18 year olds will suffer from a depressive disorder according to the National Institute of Mental Health. says that nearly 20% of US teenagers will experience a depressive episode before reaching adulthood, yet only 20% of those will receive any form of treatment or assistance. Even well-meaning and observant adults can often overlook the signs of teenage depression.

What does teenage depression look like?

Major depression is diagnosed when an individual experiences either depressed mood or loss of interest plus four more of the nine symptoms of depression for all or most of a two week period. The symptoms are the same for adults and teenagers, but the life of a teenager is much different in many respects from the life of adults, in terms of social relationships, obligations, expectations, activities, schedules, physiology, and of course life experience. As a result, the symptoms of teenage depression will often be expressed differently than those of adults.

For instance, while adults present with depressed mood, teens often show signs of irritability and anger. As a result, teens are at a much greater risk of acting out, whether directed at themselves or at others. Where adults tend to isolate from all social groups, teens may isolate from one social group in favor of another.

Teens will also be at a much greater risk of a number of behaviors such as self-mutilation (cutting, burning etc), eating disorders, reckless behavior, violent outbursts and substance use or abuse, as well as teen-specific behaviors and problems like running away from home and disciplinary problems at school. Teens are also more likely to interpret their situation as hopeless and may be at increased danger of suicide.

Recognizing the warning signs of teenage depression

In addition to the symptom expressions described above, signs of depression specific to teens might include withdrawal from friends and family, loss of interest in sports or activities and hobbies, tearfulness, frequent staring off into space, irritability, increased sensitivity to disapproval or criticism, or change in social groups.

Teenagers seem less able to hide or disguise the signs and symptoms of depression than adults, but because the symptoms don’t always look the same as they do for adults, depressed teens may be dismissed as “acting out” or being rebellious. They are considered more often than not to be a problem, to be consciously defying those who are responsible for them, or to be going through a phase which they will eventually get over.

Often this is not the case, of course, and the most important step to recognizing the signs of teen depression is to first acknowledge our own reluctance to do so.

NB: The content of this article is for information purposes and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.



National Institute of Mental Health,