UK HealthCare

In Teens, Depression May Look Different

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 4, 2015) -- Adolescence is a time of transitions. Increasing independence, maturity, and hormonal changes may predispose teenagers to occasional mood and impulse fluctuations. However, some teenagers experience more than just normal mood changes and are clinically depressed. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, about 5 percent of children and adolescents may have depression at any given time.

Depression in both adolescents and adults can manifest with complaints of sadness and crying. In contrast to adults with depression, however, adolescents also can complain of being “bored” or not enjoying activities that they used to enjoy. They may begin to draw away from friends and family or isolate themselves increasingly in their room. Since teenagers with depression may not complain of being “sad,” sometimes their behavior is confusing to school, peers, and family.

Parents may notice irritability and anger. Some teens take long naps, others have trouble falling asleep.  Some lose their appetite while others eat excessively. Occasionally teens will have thoughts of death or make statements about killing themselves. Sometimes these thoughts and feelings become apparent through posts on social media. Depression is diagnosed when these difficulties begin to impair a teenager’s functioning, such as worsening performance in school, refusal to participate in activities, or more problems at home in addition to mood changes.

Scientists believe that depression is caused by both biological and environmental factors. Teenagers may have a higher risk of developing depression if a parent also has a mood disorder, like depression or bipolar disorder. At-risk adolescents may also develop depression after a stressful life event, such as neglect or abuse, medical concerns, death of a close relative, or after experiencing bullying, including cyber bullying.

Untreated depression can have a variety of consequences. Depressed teenagers are at higher risk for tobacco, alcohol or other illicit substance use and/or suicide. In fact, according to the CDC in 2010, suicide was the third leading cause of death among those aged 15-19. If a depressed adolescent talks of self-injury, death, or suicide, parents and caregivers should take those statements seriously and have the teen evaluated by a medical or mental health professional to come up with a safety plan.

Effective treatments are available for adolescent depression. After evaluation, recommended treatments can include individual therapy, family therapy, or antidepressant medication. Combined treatment (therapy and medication) is often the most effective. Lifestyle changes, such as prioritizing good nighttime sleep, moderate exercise, and seeking out positive social support, can also have a role in recovering from depression. Parents or teens can ask their physician about how to find a qualified mental health professional for further information on diagnosis and treatment.

By Dr. Amy Lynn Meadows, Director of Pediatric Psychiatry Consultation-Liaison Program at Kentucky Children’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

This column first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in the Lexington Herald-Leader.