Why Are Our Teens So Depressed?

High school students in hallway

By Pat Matuszak

No matter how much we talk about staying young or looking young, few of us would be willing to actually become young again. Go through puberty all over again? Never! Actually be 16-years-old again? No thanks! Even though movies romanticize teen years and fashion trends suggest that we should be Forever 21, we know there are many drawbacks and challenges to that era of life.

High school students in hallwayTeen years are tough for many reasons. The changes that a human being goes through growing from childhood into a teen can be confusing. Teens wish life was still simple but long to know everything about its complexity. They want to be the trendy authority and independent expert on all things from fashion to fusion, but they still need help from parents for everything from lunches to homework. They replace those sweet childhood friendships with cliques and gossip. Then there’s puppy love, sexual identity, loneliness and the awkward silence that’s filled with dread. Nightmare!

And the nightmare has grown worse today, if you listen to the psychologists and statistics. Since 2011, depression has risen 50 percent and suicide has tripled among 12- to 14-year-old girls. Psychologist and researcher Jean Twenge has suggested that screen time on social media is the culprit — those depression and suicide statistics flow alongside the statistics on more teens owning smartphones.1

Electronics, Social Media and Depression

Many teens spend over eight hours a day on social media. This can seem like every waking minute if you observe kids in the wild. Some teens sleep with their phones and wake up to early posts. They give up eye contact and actual conversation with everyone, especially with their peers. Instead of learning to work out social conflicts in person, they interact online and may create conflicts in cyberspace.

Twenge insists this is the root of the problem, and more research is on the way. What we know is that excessive electronic media is less healthy than a physically active life. It cuts down or eliminates time for other activities psychologists prescribe for growing good mental health.

A person’s mental health goes hand-in-hand with physical health, but teens are already known for doing the opposite of things that would help their health. Poor nutrition, inactivity and inadequate sleep feed depression, so their tendency to stay up late eating junk food and watching movies is often already working against them.2 Add hours of scanning social apps instead of getting out in actual social settings, and it’s no wonder depression is rising.

How to Spot Depression in Your Teen

How do you know if your child’s sulky demeanor is the result of fleeting teen drama or actual depression? Mental health professionals tell us that depression looks different in teens than it does in adults. Many teens have an anti-authority attitude, but rebellion may also be a sign of depression. That contrary attitude may be due to tiredness. Depression saps a person’s energy, so many times there is trouble at school due to lack of focus and slipping attendance.2

If your student’s grades tumble and they have trouble remembering and following directions, even though they seem to be getting enough sleep, it may be because of fatigue from depression. They may also complain of headaches, stomach aches and muscle pain that seem to have no medical cause.2

Outbursts of tears or anger are normal in teen years. But if there seems to be an inability to cope, and if it happens frequently over a longer period of time, depression may be the culprit. Teens who feel cornered and can’t explain or find a way to cope with depression may talk about running away or suicide.

Both of these are signs their frustration is turned inward. They feel something is wrong and blame themselves. Their self-esteem may be very low. Or they may blame everyone else for this intuition that something is wrong and act out by being touchy and hostile. They may take up high risk behavior or violent actions toward others. Some teens try to self-medicate depression symptoms away by abusing substances.2

Different individuals have different reactions to the feeling that they are stuck in a cloud of depression. Whatever the reaction, it is a cry for help. But how do you help someone who is either openly hostile to adults or completely closed down to communication?

How to Talk to Your Teen About Depression

First give yourself a pep talk. Remember that you are the adult here, so respond reasonably and with mature understanding. Have patience.

Be ready to listen and to understand first. You may know your teen so well that you think you have the answers they need to hear. And that may be true. But what if a young person has closed the door to hearing your answers?

You do it by first letting them know you are listening. Listening is the ticket to being heard. Avoid the temptation to tell them about your own experiences before you hear them out. You could be on the wrong track about what is going on.

And that leads to this: Don’t get emotional if their answers surprise or frighten you. Take a deep breath and respond in a neutral way, such as: “Really? I didn’t know that. Tell me about it.”

How to Get the Help Your Teen Needs

Did your teen’s answers make you feel like you are in deep waters? Don’t hesitate to get some professional advice and help.

Clinical depression is rarely fixed by cheering your teen up with a talk, better nutrition, exercise, social activities and more sleep. Those things will improve their mental health, and it’s possible that’s all they need.3 But if depression symptoms continue there may be a chemical imbalance or psychological need. And if they mention suicidal thoughts, take them seriously and take action immediately.

Find experts in teen psychology near you. Include your teen in the decision about counseling. They need to be engaged in the process and participate willingly in therapy. Treating signs of depression seriously will help your teen learn to handle them early in life while their coping skills are still forming. It can lead to a life of being in control at their emotional helm instead of being swept away by depression.


Sources

1 Twenge, Jean. “Why So Many of Today’s Teens Are Depressed.” Psychology Today, August 25, 2017.

2 Smith, Melinda, et. al. “Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression: Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms and Helping Your Child.” Helpguide.org, January 2018.

3 Dreher, Diane. “The Alarming Rise in Teen Mental IllnessPsychology Today, January 24, 2018.