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Is My Child Okay? Understanding Teen Depression

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Major Depressive Disorder » Featured Article

By Vicki M. Leopold, LCSW

Vicki M. Leopold, LCSW

Adolescence is a time of great changes and living for the moment. Yesterday is history and tomorrow never comes. Dramatic physical, emotional, intellectual and social changes all occur within a short period of time. Change, even if expected, even if good, causes stress. Many teens cope with stress with little difficulty while others may develop depression.

It can be difficult to discern normal teenage angst from a depressive disorder. It becomes even more difficult to identify child/teen depression because the symptoms such as sadness, lethargy and feelings of hopelessness communicated by adults may not dominate the mood or expression of children. Depressed children may exhibit extreme mood swings, irritability and angry rages. They may engage in acting out, defiant behaviors or substance abuse. Teens may complain of constant ailments, as well as feeling bored by everything. The chronic nature of these behaviors is key as well as the intensity. When they are upset or down, they are very down and unable to cope.

Some depressed teens attempt to alleviate their emotional pain by self-inflicted violence such as cutting or burning themselves. While self-inflicted violence seems strange, it is used as a way to temporarily feel better. Since the mind has difficulty focusing on more then one hurt at a time, the self-injury refocuses the teen away from the emotional pain and towards the physical. Self injury is also believed to change the body chemistry and causes the body to release endorphins which produce positive feelings. Self-injury is almost always a sign of depression.

Many caring parents don’t understand their child’s depression. As a therapist, I often hear, “They just need to snap out of it.” Or “They are just so lazy,” “They just don’t care.” Depression is not a character weakness and pervasive laziness or apathy is not typical for children. Researchers now agree that a predisposition for depression is probably inherited. A recent study confirmed that when either parent has depression, children have a 50 % likelihood of having depression as well. External events can affect mood. Life changes such as divorce, moving, the break-up of a meaningful relationship, death of a loved one or constant bullying can trigger depression in a child who has a physiological vulnerability especially when these changes occur simultaneously. Early trauma that seems to have quietly gone away may emerge as a trigger during adolescence.

A teen suffering from major depression may express that life is not worth living. Such words should always be taken seriously. Children who can’t see a solution to a present problem are at risk of suicide. An alarming and increasing number of teenagers attempt and are successful at suicide. Suicide is the third highest cause of death in adolescence. High risk factors include: previous suicidal behaviors, family history of suicide, social isolation, history of substance abuse and any sudden or dramatic changes in behavior that seem out of character for the teen.

Depression is very treatable. Some people think that talking about sadness makes it worse. Actually, the opposite is almost always the case. Helping children identify their feelings and talk about them without being judged is essential. Parents can encourage good nutrition and exercise which helps the body fight the imbalance caused by depression. Medication that has been prescribed for adult depression has also been found effective in children and teens. Treatment for depression focuses on managing stress and improving problem solving techniques as well as improving communication in the family. Depression usually lifts and can be managed.

About the Author...

Vicki Leopold is a licensed clinical social worker in Fayetteville, Georgia and can be reached at 770-461-0284. She has a speciality working with children and adolescents.

Last Update: 12/2/2008

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