A whopping 20% of teens today experience depression in one form or another. It crosses lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and family history; it is, without a doubt, one of the foremost challenges facing today’s youth. It can be problematic, however, for adults to know what to look for and what to do when faced with a child or student who seems depressed. Because depression and mood disorders are such prevalent problems, we owe it to our young people to know and understand what constitutes depression and how we can be prepared to offer help.
So what are some of the signs we should look for when we suspect that depression is negatively affecting a young person’s life?
Know the Difference
There is a difference between what we might perceive as “laziness” or “lethargy” and depression. The key is being able to differentiate. A depressed teenager may experience fatigue or, on the other end of the spectrum, insomnia. He may display diminished ability to think or concentrate. In an academic setting, this can easily be mistaken for disinterest, defiance, or laziness. It is, therefore, important to be attuned to additional signs like a young person who appears tearful or sad or who exhibits marked weight loss or gain. The point is not to ever assume. By mischaracterizing a child or adolescent’s warning signs and symptoms, we put them in a truly precarious position that could lead to dire consequences. Staying educated on the criteria for depression can go a long way toward putting us in a position to help rather than to judge or punish. Adolescent depression screenings can be done by educational psychologists, who can then refer to treatment or help guide families in the right direction.
It’s Not Only Sadness
The image many people have of a depressed person who is constantly in tears or who cannot get up out of bed simply does not cover the full spectrum of depressive disorders. A depressed adolescent may, in actuality, be aggressive, prone to outbursts, temper tantrums, and irritability. As mentioned above, this does not mean that the adolescent is a “bad kid” or has a “violent streak,” but rather that, perhaps, this is the way in which depression manifests itself for this particular person. Even more importantly, we should keep in mind that these outbursts, if symptoms of depression, can sometimes be indicators of more serious behaviors to come such as self-injury or suicide. Before we begin seeking punishment or negative reinforcement, we should be aware of and sensitive to the different manifestations of depression, and the fact that they are not always written in stone.
It’s Not Always Obvious
Young people can often be good at “looking the part.” You might walk through the halls of a high school and not even know that some of the “normal” looking kids you see are actually struggling with depressive feelings. It is, therefore, vital that we give kids the benefit of the doubt, understanding always that adolescence is a time of great social, educational, and familial pressure which can result in anxiety, stress, and depression. Judging a book by its cover means potentially ignoring underlying issues.
It’s Not Always the Situation
Depression has a chemical component as well as a situational one. So, it may not simply be the upcoming test or college applications that are causing a student distress. It’s important to be aware of family history, as depression and other mental illnesses often have a genetic component. Psychologists and other mental health professionals will tell you that, often, depression is a combination of genetics and environment. It is important to understand that we can’t assume a situational change will bring about a quick “cure.” In the best interest of the child, we must be aware of all indicators.
Pay Attention to Mood
The psychological term is “emotional dysregulation.” In layman’s terms, this means an unpredictable mood that is present in more than one setting. A child who has frequent temper outbursts at home and in school is, perhaps, experiencing a disorder associated with mood dysregulation, a form of depression. When mood changes become severe and persistent, and interfere with an adolescent and his family’s daily routine, it may be time to consider assessment for a possible mood disorder.
Look for Changes
Big and small changes in an adolescent’s daily routine may signal problems. Adolescents who suddenly seem uninterested in activities they used to be passionate about may be showing signs of depression. Changes in appetite, relationships, academic performance, social interest and sleep patterns can all signal a depression-related disorder. Being attuned to changes, major and minor, can help you to advocate for your child and nip emotional issues in the bud.
Identity Crisis is Real
While we perhaps live in a society that is more accepting than ever, we must also realize that identity is a difficult subject, especially for young people. The insecurities that surround gender, sexuality, and ethnicity are real for young people and can complicate their ability to fit in and cope with problems. When we think we might be working with a depressed student, we should bear in mind where he or she is in terms of identity, as it can be clearly linked to problems related to depression.
So what can we do to help young people who face depression?
Keep the Dialogue Open
Number one is to keep the lines of communication open. Let adolescents know that not only is it ok to feel down, it’s more than ok to talk about it. Keeping distressing emotions inside can lead to major problems down the line. Empathy, openness, and a nonjudgmental stance will offer depressed young people a supportive environment that can help them heal.
Sometimes it can be easy to feel embarrassed about problems in our families or with our children. It is important to realize that communities are filled with people who can help, if only we are willing to ask. Therapists, school professionals, coaches, and others can help kids and families deal with depression. Please keep in mind that we have mental health professionals on staff at iAchieve Learning ready to offer help— so don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Are you concerned about your child’s mental health? Contact us today to talk to our Psychologist on staff!