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Real Talk: Talking with teens about depression - a mom's perspective

A mom talks about teen distress

Jill Valentino talks about teen distress

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most teenagers have positive mental health experiences. However, also true is that almost 20 percent of teens will deal with a serious mental health issue at some point during their adolescent years.

Mental health issues versus typical teen behavior 
Caregivers of teens must understand that not all undesirable teenage behaviors indicate a mental health issue. Most adolescents are prone to mood swings, and a brief display of sadness, anxiety, or intense exuberance is, for the most part, quite normal. Two common red flags that could signify a more serious mental health issue include:

  • Prolonged behavioral symptoms that persist for two weeks or longer

  • Symptoms that interfere with personal relationships and daily functioning

A modern epidemic
Depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder, affecting almost one in eight adolescents each year. It can be defined as a persistent feeling of sadness that affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A person experiencing continuous depression symptoms that last for a minimum of two weeks is likely experiencing a major depressive episode. If left untreated, depression can lead to severe complications, including health problems, substance abuse, and possible suicide.

READ MORE: A professional's perspective on teen depression

Causes of depression
While an exact cause of adolescent depression is not known, a variety of factors can contribute to its onset. They include:

  • Genetics
  • Hormonal changes
  • Childhood trauma
  • Death of a loved one
  • Bullying
  • Abuse/neglect
  • Academic difficulties
  • Stressful home environment
  • Poverty

However, it is important to note that the causes of a teenager’s depression diagnosis are not limited to solely those listed above. An adolescent who has not faced any of the challenges mentioned above can still wind up clinically depressed for unexplained reasons. No young person should ever be considered exempt from depression, no matter how idyllic their life may appear.

Risk factors
While it’s true that nobody is immune to depression, certain adolescents are at higher risk than others, including those who have:

  • Co-occurring mental health conditions including anxiety, eating disorders or substance abuse
  • Physical diseases, such as diabetes or cancer
  • A family history of mental health issues
  • Chronic family dysfunction
  • Ongoing issues with schoolmates
  • Learning difficulties or ADD/ADHD
  • Experienced childhood trauma
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor coping skills

Additionally, adolescents identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are often considered at a higher risk for depression than their heteronormative peers, especially if their families are not supportive.

READ MORE: Discussing difficult topics with your teen

Signs and symptoms
To recognize adolescent depression, all caregivers need to know the signs and symptoms. Teenagers tend to rely on trusted adults to recognize their suffering and take the necessary first steps toward getting them the help they need.

Common signs and symptoms of teenage depression can include:

  • Continual, long-term feelings of deep sadness
  • Changes in appetite, weight, or sleep patterns
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness
  • Decreased interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • An overall decrease in energy level or sluggishness
  • Trouble concentrating or recalling information
  • Avoiding/withdrawing from friends/family
  • Worsening academic performance
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts

It is important to note that not all the behaviors listed above are definitive indicators of depression. Instead, this list is intended as a guide to aid in assessing each adolescent child’s unique situation.

How to help
If you suspect your teen is depressed, you should first schedule a visit with his or her pediatrician. The doctor will do an exam, and if it’s agreed that your child could be depressed, he or she may refer your teen to a specialist for further evaluation and treatment.

READ MORE: Places you can contact if you think your child needs professional help

While getting your child professional help for depression is extremely important, there are ways to help your child at home, too, including:

  • Setting aside time each day to talk. Be willing to listen to your child without distractions, showing that he/she is a priority. Prioritizing face time with a depressed child can make a marked difference to his or her recovery.

  • Encouraging your teen to get involved. Suggest involvement in activities that take advantage of your teen’s interest and talents. Encourage our teen to go out with friends or invite friends over. Give your child opportunities to meet and connect with other kids.

  • Promoting a healthy lifestyle. Ensure that your child eats well, gets enough sleep, and participates in daily physical activity. If on medication, gently remind your teen to take his or her medications as necessary.

  • Keeping your home safe. Lock up alcohol and all prescription medications. If you own guns, keep them locked up, too, and stored separately from ammunition.

  • Be patient and kind. Depression can cause teens to act grumpy and irritable. Remind yourself that these moods are part of their affliction and try not to take things your child says or does personally. A positive relationship with a parent or caregiver can make a world of difference for a teen, especially one currently battling to overcome depression.

Jill Valentino is a wife, mom of two, elementary educator, and lifelong resident of the Hudson Valley. 

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