Study Shows Treating Depression in Teens Boosts Parent Mental Health

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New research shows that treating depression in teens improves their parents’ mental health, too. Therefore, treatment for teen depression has a beneficial effect on the entire family.

These findings support what parents already know about how depression affects a family. When a child is struggling, parents feel their pain acutely. Moreover, when a teen is depressed, their mood affects everyone in the household. As a result, when they feel better, the atmosphere in the home becomes more positive overall.

In addition, treating depression in teens often improves communication between the parent and the child. That’s especially true when they attend family therapy together as part of treatment for teen depression.

“We exist in families, we exist in social networks. And a lot of our well-being, a lot of our highs and lows, might come from these relationships.”

—Kelsey Howard, lead researcher on the new study

How the Study Tracked Depression in Families

Kelsey Howard, a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is the lead author of the study. Therefore, Howard presented her research at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association on August 12.

Howard and her adviser, Mark Reinecke, analyzed data from a 2008 study that followed 325 teenagers getting treatment for depression over the course of about nine months. The methods for treating depression in teens included cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medication, or both.

Before and during that study, the researchers also surveyed one parent of each teenager for symptoms of depression. Of the study’s participating parents, 87 percent were mothers. And the data showed that, before the teens started treatment for depression, about 25 percent of those parents were also experiencing high levels of depression.

Consequently, the teenagers’ well-being and psychological health improved with treatment. And Howard’s study found that the mental health of their parents improved as well. Furthermore, parents’ well-being improved whether the child was receiving therapy for teen depression or taking medication.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Treating Depression in Teens

The Relational Impact of Treating Depression in Teens

The new study builds on previous research showing how mental health can be relational. In other words, treating teen depression benefits not just the individuals themselves, but also their family members. As a result, treating depression in teens has the potential to benefit entire communities, and society as a whole.

Earlier research in this area includes the following studies.

  • Research by Myrna Weissman showed that when mothers are treated for depression, their kids feel better, too.
  • A study of 5,303 women found that women with depressive symptoms were significantly more likely to have children with behavioral issues and frequent temper tantrums.
  • Another study of adopted and non-adopted children found that a mother’s depression affected both her adopted and non-adopted kids.
  • Researchers in Ireland and the United Kingdom discovered a correlation between depressive symptoms in fathers and in their children. 

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Treating Depression in Teens

Leading Causes of Teenage Depression

An estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2016, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This number represents 12.8 percent of the US population in that age group.

Why are today’s teens suffering? Along with perennial adolescent challenges, they also face issues that were unknown to past generations. In particular: technology in general, and social media in particular. American teens consume an average of nine hours of digital media a day. And research shows that the more they consume, the worse they feel. One study found that teenagers who checked social media sites between 50 and 100 times a day were 37 percent more distressed than those who checked just a few times a day.

During the school year especially, adolescents spend so much time doing homework and on screens that they don’t get outside nearly enough. Therefore, they suffer from what’s become known as Nature Deficit Disorder. A phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Nature Deficit Disorder refers to the fact that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors. As a result, teens experience a wide range of behavioral and mental health problems, including depression.

In addition, today’s teens are more protected than in the past. Parents try to shield them from experiencing failure and disappointment. Therefore, they have fewer chances to build resilience and learn how to cope with challenges.

Moreover, bullying is directly correlated with teen depression, and kids who are bullied are more likely to be depressed as adults. That includes online bullying, and it’s not just the victims who are at risk: Children who bully others also have an increased rate of depression.

Types of Teenage Depression

There are several types of depression in teens. The most common depressive disorders include the following.

  • Major depression: a severe depression that can incapacitate those who are suffering, making it difficult or impossible to do normal daily activities, such as working, studying, sleeping, and eating
  • Persistent depressive disorder: a chronic, low-grade depression that can get better or worse over time
  • Melancholic depression: a particularly severe form of major depressive disorder characterized by persistent feelings of extreme sadness and hopelessness
  • Psychotic depression: severe depression, accompanied by delusions or hallucinations
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): a cyclical depression that comes and goes with the seasons
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder: an extreme form of premenstrual syndrome that can manifest as intense and debilitating mood shifts

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Treating Depression in Teens

10 Warning Signs of Teen Depression 

It’s important for parents to know how to recognize symptoms of depression. Here are 10 of the most common warning signs that signal the need for treating depression in teens.

  • Avoidance of social situations and a loss of interest in favored activities
  • Exhaustion, constant fatigue, and a generalized lack of energy
  • Sense of despair, sadness, and hopelessness (sometimes escalating into suicidal thoughts)
  • Lack of motivation (resulting in feelings of either guilt and/or failure)
  • Unexplained aches and pains, headaches, stomach problems
  • Hard time concentrating (particularly for teens who used to be focused)
  • Feeling worthless, irritable, frustrated, or having an extreme case of low self-esteem
  • Disturbed sleep patterns (taking naps during the day, insomnia at night)
  • Changes in appetite and weight (including not eating on a regular basis or binge eating)
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs to cope with the pain as a form of self-medication

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Treating Depression in Teens

How to Parent a Teenager with Depression

Parents can help their teens protect themselves from depression. First, parents can model and encourage self-care. Thus, they can help kids develop healthy habits in terms of nutrition, sleep, exercise, and time outdoors. All these approaches boost mental health.

Parents also need to listen carefully to what their teen shares and watch for warning signs of depression. Instead of getting upset or angry if they find out their kids have been experiencing symptoms of depression, parents should respond with compassion and invite them to share what’s going on.

Finally, if you’re a parent who’s concerned that your teen is depressed, have them talk to a school counselor, therapist, or doctor immediately. It’s always better to address the problem as soon as possible.

And parents who find that their mental health is suffering, too, should give themselves permission to seek the help they need as well. As the research shows, treating depression in teens and treating depression in parents will support the entire family.

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National Institute of Mental Health