Here's What Teen Depression Looks like (Spoiler: It May Not Be What You Think)
Depression can feel both confusing and insurmountable. In this week's Teen Talk, a teen with depression shares what their experience is like and an expert weighs in on how parents can play a big role in helping them through it with education and support.
Mental illness still isn't always a common household topic. The information that too many people get about it is from books, movies, and digital forums, which can be full of problematic and stigmatized views. When I was diagnosed with depression, my family wasn't sure about how to navigate the weeks that would pass when I stopped being myself. I didn't want to get out of bed and didn't have any energy or motivation. We didn't immediately know where to go for help. But depression is a common mental illness and understanding the signs, symptoms, and treatment options can help parents help their teen who may be dealing with it.
In teens, depression can manifest itself in many ways—sometimes it seems like laziness or fatigue. Other times it prompts gloomy and occasionally frightening thoughts. Depressed teens might feel hopeless, become withdrawn, and isolated. Different biological and environmental factors can increase the risk of depression, but at times it can spawn seemingly out of nowhere. Before I was diagnosed, I felt like a dark cloud was hanging over me. After a while, it started to seem normal and like it was a part of me that would never go away. I found a quote from the author Andrew Solomon that best describes how I saw the world then—and sometimes still see it: "You don't think in depression that you've put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you're seeing truly." I thought I saw the world for the first time, the pointlessness of everything, and I didn't consider once that this was caused by my depression. I thought I had grown up and finally understood how the world worked.
Unlike sadness, depression isn't an emotion—it is not something that can easily be fixed by a change of perspective. My depression wouldn't just disappear thanks to a fun plan, like a trip to an ice cream shop or rewatching a favorite movie. Instead, I talk to a therapist and work harder to communicate what I'm feeling. Many teens can also take prescribed medication like antidepressants. Here's what I want parents to know about depression in teens.
Speak to Your Teen About Depression
A Teen's Take: Regardless of whether your teen has been diagnosed with depression or has symptoms, it's something they should know about. It's important for them to understand that they can reach out for help if they ever need it. If you told me a few years ago that the reason I could not go to school, that the reason I was still suffering was because I wasn't trying hard enough to get better, I would have believed you. I would have continued to do everything I could. But, inevitably, it wouldn't work, because it isn't possible to change a perspective and suddenly be able to function again.
It took my parents and me time to realize I had depression. First I went online, which was probably one of the worst things I could have done. I diagnosed myself with dozens of different disorders and conditions I didn't have, and I panicked. But, then I read poetry and stories about depression. I could see myself in these people, and I finally understood that I wasn't alone. I started talking to my parents about getting a diagnosis and looking for treatment. I began seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, and slowly I began the process of getting better.
An Expert's Take: "Just as we regularly talk about how to maintain good physical health with sleep, nutrition, and exercise, having periodic discussions about mental health normalizes the experience of talking about emotional and psychological well-being," says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Illinois who specializes in working with children and adolescents and Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist. "The more comfortable a parent appears discussing general mental health, the more likely their teen will open up when they need help. Although younger children can experience depression, it is most common in adolescence so a good time to proactively broach the topic is in the process of coaching your child through puberty, include mental health awareness as part of anticipating potential changes."
How to Break the Stigma Around Mental Health
A Teen's Take: When we hear about mental illness, it's too often stigmatized. Tabloids and newspapers label serial killers with signs of mental illness as psychotic and insane. Video games and horror movies take place in psychiatric hospitals or care facilities and the patients are deemed monsters.
Stigma also affects society on a larger level. Many people in charge of government funding hold these beliefs, and therefore don't fund mental health services as much as needed. Schools lack mental health professionals, and it might not be easy to find resources that could help your child.
You can help break this stigma by pointing it out and how it is an incorrect representation to your teen when you see it.
An Expert's Take: "If a parent has struggled with depression or any other type of mental health problem, disclosing this to their teen goes a long way toward normalizing the experience as well as helping the teen not feel alone," says Dr. Edlynn. "Even if the parent does not have their own personal history, sharing any experience with a friend or loved one illustrates how mental health struggles show up in real life in all types of people. There are also plenty of more positive media representations to focus on, including high profile celebrities opening up about their struggles. So, in addition to explicitly rejecting negative media stereotypes about mental illness, parents can also integrate positive representations of struggling with and managing mental health."
How to Get Your Teen Help
A Teen's Take: My parents helped me find a local therapist and psychiatrist, and one of the most important parts of this was asking for help and admitting that I needed it. This is how I found a treatment plan that worked and still works for me. If you're unsure where to start looking for help, ask your pediatrician or school nurse. If you know that a friend sees a therapist, you might be able to call that therapist for a recommendation. There are also websites that connect you to local or online therapists like betterhelp.com or psychologytoday.com. For emergency situations, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 800-273-8255. LGBTQ teens can call, text, or chat with The Trevor Project hotline. The Child Mind Institute is also a great resource for gathering information.
An Expert's Take: "If your teen asks for a therapist, even if you may not see a need, this request on its own is meaningful," says Dr. Edlynn. "Taking steps with your teen to find professional support is another way to actively oppose stigma by demonstrating you will do whatever it takes for your teen to get the help they need. I recommend looking at online sources of information and support together to ensure your teen is benefitting from guidance grounded in sound expertise. Although parents often tend toward self-blame, it's more helpful to see yourself as part of the solution, and offering to help them find resources is one way to show them you will stay by their side."
The Bottom Line
Mental health care for kids is considered taboo in a lot of circles because many believe their children should be able to help themselves or that it's a sign of weakness. This worsens the situation by putting unrealistic expectations on your child. Depression is, as shown in scientific research, a biological mental illness. It takes a lot of effort to overcome it, and it is far from easy. It took more than two years for me to begin to feel more like myself. But there is hope for teens with depression, and I want everyone to know that.
Rosen Piperni, age 14, is in 9th grade and lives in Brooklyn, New York. They enjoy playing the guitar, writing poetry, and trying out random recipes from the internet.
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