Is it Teenage Angst or Depression?

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Given the ups and downs of teenage emotions, it can be hard for a parent to know whether a teen’s difficult phase is due to teenage angst or depression. In fact, 40 percent of parents have a hard time distinguishing between mood swings and teen depression, according to a national poll conducted by the Mott Children’s Hospital in 2019.

Therefore, it’s helpful for parents to understand the differences between teen angst and depression.

What Is Teen Angst?

Unlike depression, which is a mental health disorder, there is no medical definition for teen angst. Angst is a word for worry or dread. Since teen angst is brought about by feelings of insecurity or apprehension, it’s not unusual for teens to experience this feeling. Given the physical changes and emotional turbulence that characterize the experience of being a teenager, angst is a common reaction to many situations—whether it’s a math test, a sports event, or a challenging friendship.

Indeed, teen angst can be part of the process of evolving and maturing into a healthy adult. Although it’s not easy to experience tension and frustration, it can actually help teens learn more about how to navigate and regulate their emotions. And that’s more likely to happen when parents understand what teens are going through and support them in processing their feelings.

Determining Whether It’s Teenage Angst or Depression

Unlike teen angst, teenage depression is a potentially life-threatening mental health condition. Mental health professionals highlight the importance of not downplaying behaviors that might be symptoms of depression in teenagers. Research shows that 50 percent of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by the age of 14. Moreover, half of all teenagers with a mental health condition never receive any treatment whatsoever.

In addition, when left untreated, adolescent mental health issues become adult mental health issues. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, 75 percent of teenagers who experience a depressive episode during adolescence later struggle with depression, other mood disorders, and/or substance use disorder as adults.

Given such statistics, the question of how to recognize depression in teenagers is a crucial one to ask. Parents do not need to sound the alarms every time a teenager has a mood swing, but they do need to pay close attention to what’s happening.

How to Recognize Depression in Teenagers

To distinguish between teenage angst and depression, mental health professionals examine three critical areas of concern. These areas of concern are:

  • The intensity or severity of the problematic feelings and behaviors
  • The duration, or length of time, of these experiences when they occur
  • The domains, or experiences, that define the boundaries of what is happening.

The Three Domains of Mental Health Disorders

Intensity or Severity: Is the intensity of the symptoms interfering with a teen’s everyday life, including family life, social activities, and school? Gauging the intensity and the severity of the issue helps parents distinguish between a passing condition and a mood disorder.

Duration: Are the moodiness and difficult emotions ongoing, or does it only crop up now and then? In other words, are the symptoms chronic and consistent, or are they unusual? When they do arise, how long do they last—days? Weeks?

Domain: Often, a teenager shows symptoms of teen angst around authority figures like parents or teachers. But then the symptoms disappear when they’re with their friends. However, teen depression makes itself known in nearly all situations and circumstances. Thus, if the symptoms arise in several domains, such as home, at school, and with friends, this indicates a greater likelihood of a mental health condition.

What to Do About Symptoms of Depression in Teenagers

If a parent recognizes symptoms of depression in a teenager, the best course of action is to access professional help and make sure the teen has a comprehensive mental health assessment. Early diagnosis and treatment of depression and any co-occurring disorders improves treatment outcomes. Hence, the sooner parents learn to distinguish whether their child is suffering from teenage angst or depression, the sooner that child can be on the road to recovery.

Sources:

JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(4):389–391.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):593–602.

Mott Poll Report