Teen Depression: Statistics, Causes, and Treatment

Teenage depression might be more common than you think. Learn about the symptoms, causes, and how you can help as a parent.

Teen Girl Stressed Doing Homework
Photo: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

It’s normal for teenagers to have bouts of irritability, sleepiness, and sadness. But when symptoms last for two weeks or more, it could signal depression. “It's generally stated that one in five young people will develop depression before they reach age 25,” says Susan Weinstein, co-executive director of programs and operations at Families for Depression Awareness. Learn more about teen depression statistics, then understand the causes, risk factors, and how you can help as a parent.

Teen Depression Statistics

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 13.3% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 had “at least one major depressive episode” in 2017. That equates to 3.2 million American teens. What’s more, 70.77% of depression sufferers experienced at least one instance of “severe impairment” that interfered with life.

Here are some other relevant statistics:

Unfortunately, rates of teenage depression have risen over the years, says Jennifer Rothman, senior manager of youth and young adult initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). While more research needs to be done, Rothman hypothesizes a couple reasons behind the trend: the increasing pressure of school work and bullying. Cyberbullying that “doesn’t end with the school day” is especially problematic. “We’re seeing mental health issues more and more,” says Rothman. “People are becoming more aware of the warning signs and seeking help. The earlier depression is recognized, the better the outcomes for the future.”

What Causes Depression in Teens?

Depression may be caused by several different factors, according to Rachel Busman, PsyD, a board-certified child and adolescent psychologist and senior director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. For starters, she says “kids can have a biological predisposition toward anxiety or depression, which sets the stage for the condition.” In other words, having a parent with depression makes children and teens more likely to develop depression themselves. That’s partly because kids learn from their parent’s behavior and tend to imitate their actions.

Depression may also be triggered by your biology/brain chemistry, as well as negative childhood experiences like neglect, trauma, abuse, or parental divorce. Another risk factor is being forced into stressful life events – like dealing with a family death or starting college – without sufficient coping strategies or a support network. What’s more, Rothman says kids who have a hard time in school, such as those with learning disabilities, could develop depression if they’re falling behind in their classes and grades.

Finally, there may be a link between childhood depression and anxiety. “An untreated anxiety disorder in a child is one of the top predictors of developing depression by the time you hit adolescence,”says Lynn Lyons, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, speaker, and author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents. “If you have an anxiety issue and don’t learn the skills to help, your odds of becoming depressed are pretty high.”

Symptoms of Teen Depression

If your teen displays at least five of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, he/she may have depression:

Depression Treatment: How to Help a Teen with Depression

If you think your teen has depression, don’t panic. “Remember that depression is a treatable disorder. It’s not permanent,” says Lyons. However, it’s important to seek treatment sooner rather than later, since depression can come with a host of negative consequences. These include academic failure, substance misuse, impaired interpersonal relationships with family and peers, eating disorders, increased severity of health conditions, crime, and suicidal behaviors, says Weinstein. What’s more, Rothman adds that kids with depression simply won’t live life to the fullest.

The first step a parent should take is “seeking out accurate information from people who specialize in the treatment of depression,” says Lyons. Then you should approach your teen with openness and acceptance. Don’t be afraid to call out symptoms you’ve been noticing (like spending excess time alone, dwindling grades, etc.) and ask their opinion about treatment options. “Parents always want to give opinions and advice, but they don’t always take the time to listen to children's needs and feelings,” says Rothman. “Parents need to make their children feel heard and make them a part of the solution.”

After speaking with your child, it’s time to seek professional help. Dr. Busman says many parents visit a trusted pediatrician, but you could also find a psychologist or psychiatrist on websites like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT). The National Alliance on Mental Illness can also connect teens with local support.

“Look for a mental health provider who has specialization in children and adolescents and who practices evidence-based care,” Dr. Busman suggests. It’s important to note, however, that you should seek help immediately if your child has suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Experts often treat teen depression with medication or talk therapy (psychotherapy). For moderate to severe depression, teens usually improve best with a combination of medication and therapy – particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), says Weinstein. She also recommends three lifestyle factors that can manage symptoms of depression: adequate sleep, balanced eating, and exercise.

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