Depression in adolescents and young people: Explained
Published: 1 July, 2019
According to Mission Australia’s latest Youth Mental Health report, one in four young people are at risk of serious mental health conditions. Here, Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, Senior Research Fellow and Clinical Psychologist at the Black Dog Institute, responds to common questions asked about depression in adolescents and young people.
What does depression in adolescents and young people look like?
Depression can look different for different people, so it’s important to know about the range of signs and symptoms which characterise depression.
Key symptoms to look out for include:
- A depressed or irritable mood that is present for most of the day, almost every day
- A loss of interest or pleasure in activities that are usually enjoyable
- Decreased energy, motivation and feelings of fatigue
- Loss of confidence and self-esteem
- Unreasonable feelings of guilt and self-loathing
- Thoughts of death, suicide, or self-harm
- Inability to concentrate or think clearly
- Problems falling asleep and staying asleep
- Changes in appetite and weight
For teenagers, this might include not wanting to take part in activities like sports or social activities that they previously enjoyed, feeling tired during the day but still having trouble going to sleep at night, withdrawing from friends and family, and struggling to concentrate at school.
How do I know if someone is depressed?
Depression in young people may not always be noticeable to other people in their lives. Adolescence is a time of tremendous development, including physical, hormonal, emotional and behavioural changes.
One of the biggest challenges in identifying adolescent depression is working out whether it differs from the natural changes of emotions and behaviours that are typical during this complex stage of life.
Generally, one of the key ways to identify depression is to see if symptoms have been present for more than two weeks. This is the first indicator that it could be more than the general mood fluctuations that are expected from young people.
The other way to work out if it might be depression is to consider how much the symptoms are interfering with everyday life, and how distressing they are to the young person.
So, if depressive thoughts and feelings get in the way of a young person completing their schoolwork or getting on with their friends, and lasts for more than two weeks, it’s a sign that it might be depression.
What is early intervention and why it is important?
Early intervention involves providing support and services to people who show early warning signs or symptoms of depression for the first time. The aim of early intervention is to prevent a deterioration in mental health and usually involves psychological approaches to manage and reduce depression.
This approach is critically important because getting in early leads to better outcomes over the long term throughout someone’s life. Research has shown that young people who receive help early not only experience the immediate benefit of treatment but are less likely to experience relapse and future episodes of depression.
What are the best ways to get help if I am concerned my child is showing signs of depression?
An important first step is to talk to your child about it. The most important thing you can offer is your care and support.
Raise your concerns in a gentle, open way and listen to your child’s responses. Validate and empathise with their experiences. Keep in mind that depression can make a young person feel like there is something terribly wrong with them, and that they are unlikely to get better. They might feel very ashamed or guilty about feeling this way, so talking about it can be very difficult.
The next step is to discuss seeking professional help with your child.
You can suggest taking them to their doctor, calling a counselling telephone line with them such as the Kids Helpline, or arranging a meeting for them with a mental health professional.
If you are very concerned, it’s really important to take your child to see a GP. They will do an assessment and potentially provide a referral to a mental health professional like a clinical psychologist.
If a young person does develop depression it can stick around and get worse if left untreated., so it often requires the guidance of a health professional to provide the best and most appropriate treatment.
If your child is reluctant to seek help at first, explain why you’re worried and give them information that they can access in their own time.
You can also direct them to headspace, a youth mental health organisation that provides information, support and services to young people.
As a parent, is there anything in particular that I can do to help my child?
The most important thing that you can do is offer your child support, patience, understanding and compassion. They are having a really difficult time. Be a supportive listener and make sure you give them the time they need. It’s important to keep checking in with them to see how they are feeling.
You might want to organise to spend time with them doing something enjoyable, or encourage them to speak with a trusted adult like a family member or family friend if they are not able to open up to you.
It’s also vital that you encourage them to seek help, and if you are concerned it’s really important that you take your child to see a GP.
Should I be worried if my child is diagnosed with depression?
It’s natural and understandable to feel worried.
Depression is common – 1 in 5 people will experience it at least once in their lives. Adolescence is a time of heightened risk for depression to develop because of the many changes young people are going through.
There are excellent treatments available that are effective in reducing symptoms. Psychological approaches such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) are usually the first line of treatment, which targets the links between negative thinking, emotion and behaviour.
If you have experienced depression before, it doesn’t mean that it will be experienced again in the future. Some people do experience subsequent episodes while others do not, so it’s important to get in early when symptoms first emerge to decrease the risk of it happening again.
Which e-mental health programs would you recommend for young people experiencing depression?
You can also check out BiteBack, our positive psychology e-mental health program. It’s a preventative tool designed for young people between 12-18 years old to build resilience and reduce stress levels.
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)