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Teens and Depression

By Maxine Roeper Cohen, M.S.

As parents, it’s difficult to determine if your teen is suffering from depression or anxiety, or is merely being moody. Rates of clinical depression and anxiety have risen in the teenage population (ages 12-17) during the past ten years. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that in the past year 3 million adolescents have had one episode of depression. It’s on the rise for teens living in all types of environments: urban, suburban, and rural. Dangerous behaviors such as self-harm are also on the rise.

Historically, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that depression was even diagnosed in teens. The behavior was dismissed, as doctors didn’t think that teens’ brains were developed enough to have such an adult disorder. This changed in 1987 due to FDA approval of effective and safe drugs to treat teens’ mood disorders.

Many times, a teen can have a loving family, many friends, and do well in school, yet still suffer from depression. It runs in families and can make a teen vulnerable. The combination of surging hormones with a great deal of life stressors can result in depression emerging in the vulnerable teenager.

Social media plays a role too. In addition to dealing with surges of hormones, wanting to do well in school, and struggling with peer pressure (things we adults had to deal with in our own teen years), today’s teens have the added pressure of comparing their life to others in an online format (such as Facebook) where a teen only shows a best image, creating an impossible standard for vulnerable teens. Eighty percent of teens have cell phones, and every embarrassing event can be replayed virtually forever. Social media provides for cyberbullying which is pervasive and can’t be gotten rid of. Bullying in person is temporary and hurtful, but cyberbullying’s impact is worse. This lack of escape can lead to teens committing suicide.

So, what can parents do to spot a depression or anxiety disorder in their teen? It’s not easy as symptoms are more subtle than a physical ailment. Warning signs of general anxiety include headaches, stomachaches, and not wanting to get up in the morning. Some signs of depression, especially in female teens, include acts of self-harm (cutting, burning, or striking themselves) as these are signs of self-medicating emotions, calming themselves. Instead of feeling depressed, these acts of self-injury help the teen to feel better in that moment. The best advice for parents: if you notice any behaviors that seem out of your teen’s normal repertoire, speak with him/her. Reach out to your teen’s teachers, counselors, and coaches, and ask if they see troubling/changing behavior. Keep family communication lines open, and don’t give up. Encourage family discussions at the dinner table. Try to have everyone speak about their day and be sensitive. Don’t be afraid to speak up and convince your teen to talk with adults. Suggest visiting a health care professional together for help. The earlier help can be arranged, the better the outcome and impact on a teen’s everyday life. Please reach out and not allow your teen to suffer in silence.

Maxine Roeper Cohen is a Parent Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at mc333@cornell.edu.

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