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Is My Child Suffering from Teenage Depression?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Teenage behavior can be confusing for parents. It’s not unusual for teens to experience mood swings, which may be caused by hormones, external events, or other changes.

However, when teens have frequent and extreme mood swings over an extended period of time, it could be cause for concern. This is especially true when there are other behaviors that indicate the presence of teenage depression.

Why Does Depression Need to Be Taken So Seriously?

Depression symptoms in teens include lethargy, sleep disturbances, distraction, lack of motivation, and feelings of being overwhelmed or hopeless. The most severe depression symptoms in teens, however, are suicidal thoughts or suicide.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 34. In fact, a 2019  analysis of teen suicide statistics shows that the youth suicide rate in the United States is the highest in recorded history. That statistic is a sobering indication of how many teens and young adults are not able to access adequate mental health care. It’s also a reminder of why depression should always be taken seriously.

When Is the Right Time to Seek Treatment for Teenage Depression

The symptoms of depression vary from individual to individual. The same is true of signs related to suicide risk. Suicidal thoughts in teens are not always obvious prior to a suicide attempt. In addition, teens who are suffering from depression may not be able or willing to express how serious their symptoms are.

Therefore, depression symptoms in teens require immediate attention. That’s why parents need to act upon the first indication of depressive symptoms. Mental health should always be treated with urgency, given the staggering number of deaths as a result of suicide each year.

The Prevalence of Depression Among Teens

According to recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 9.4 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 have a depressive episode, with at least one significant life impairment, within a single year. Major impairments are defined as interfering with or limiting a person’s ability to engage in daily activities. Of those teens diagnosed with depression, 71 percent experienced severe impairment due to their depression.

Moreover, according to the SAMHSA data, 60 percent of adolescents suffering from major depressive episode did not receive mental health treatment of any kind.

Finding the Right Treatment for Teenage Depression

Pediatricians and other health practitioners have been diagnosing depression and prescribing antidepressants at an increasing rate. In part, that’s because, since 2016, the US Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that all children between ages 12 and 18 be screened for depression.

However, once depression is diagnosed or suggested by a general practitioner, a referral to a mental health specialist—whenever possible—is the most effective approach. The benefits of seeing a mental health provider such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist, as opposed to another type of medical professional, include the following:

  • A mental health provider can most accurately diagnose depression, including subclasses of depression.
  • Co-occurring disorders or less familiar diagnoses are more likely to be missed by a general practitioner.
  • Teens will receive the best possible treatment from a mental health provider due to their in-depth understanding of the treatment options.

Therapy for Treating Teenage Depression

Multiple factors contribute to depression, including biological, emotional, and circumstantial issues. One of the most common causes of depression is untreated trauma, whether that’s acute trauma, vicarious trauma, chronic trauma, or PTSD. Thus, therapy for treating depression involves processing traumatic experiences. In addition, therapy for teens with depression includes healing rifts in the family dynamic, so children feel safe turning to their parents for support. Teens who are suffering from co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse or eating disorders, may need additional therapeutic interventions that directly address these challenges.

Therapy can also teach teens healthy coping skills for working with their emotions and boosting their mood and well-being. Some of these skills include

  • Nutritious diet—using the meal as medicine
  • Exercise, proven to reduce depression
  • Good sleep habits, which are closely linked to mental health
  • Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation
  • Self-talk to help reframe stressors and triggers.

Additionally, talk therapy creates another opportunity for a licensed professional to observe moods and other changes. A therapist can be an extra safety net in recognizing whether a teen with depression needs a higher level of care, such as an Intensive Outpatient Program or residential treatment.

How Can Education Help Treat My Teen’s Depression?

To diagnose depression, healthcare providers collect as much information as possible from the family, both teens and parents. This includes a family health history, including mental health; details about moods and behaviors; and information about any recent changes or long-standing challenges in the family’s or the teen’s life. Knowledge is the key to diagnosis.

Information is also key to the successful treatment of depression. In order to offer support for their teen, parents can learn more about depression, treatment, and the role of the family in the healing journey. For example, parents can do research using credible sources; join parent support groups; and find out more about evidence-based approaches to well-being to practice at home.

Navigating a Teenage Depression Diagnosis

Discovering a mental health issue can be overwhelming for a parent. It can feel difficult to take action, because it means admitting that there’s a problem. But it’s essential, because depression doesn’t go away on its own. Furthermore, untreated depression can lead to severe consequences such as a suicide attempt or hospitalization. Hence, getting a diagnosis as early as possible is critical.

In addition, navigating diagnosis and treatment creates opportunities for the family to bond and become closer. Therefore, parents and children develop stronger relationships that can support them for the long term. Working as a unit, families can navigate depression and enjoy a better and more harmonious life together.


JAMA. 2019;321(23):2362–2364.

Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004; 6(3): 104–111.

Photo by Tiago Bandeira on Unsplash