I Was a Teen with Depression—Here’s What I Wish I Knew

According to a recent study, one in five teens experiences depressive symptoms. But what is depression, really—and what does an adolescent diagnosis mean for your future?

Teen sitting in bed looking sad and depressed

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While most people reflect on their teenage years yearningly, wistfully—with an air of nostalgia and whimsy—my teenage years were a bit less colorful. A bit less wonderful. Scratch that: They were painful. Awful. Horrific. The reason? I was living with undiagnosed (and untreated) teen depression. I was one of millions of adolescents living with a mental health condition.

Now to give you an idea of what it's like to be a teenager with depression, I should probably give you an idea of what I was like. Of what I (still) am like. You see, I have never been a stand-up straight sort of gal. At five-feet tall, I probably lose an inch to slouching. My shoulders are always hunched forward. My head is always turned downward, and my gaze? It is either at my feet or out and away. I am very uncomfortable in my own skin. I am also pretty darn awkward. I’m clumsy. Gawky. Bumbling, bungling, and socially inept. But during high school, the level of discomfort I felt shifted. My energy shifted, and while I cannot tell you when it happened, hindsight can tell you why.

“Depression in teens is a serious medical illness. It's more than just a feeling of being sad or ‘blue’ for a few days,” explains Medline Plus, a service from the National Library of Medicine. “It is an intense feeling of sadness, hopelessness, anger or frustration… [it] make[s] it hard for you to function normally and do your usual activities,” the article continues. “You may also have trouble focusing and have no motivation or energy. Depression can make you feel like it is hard to enjoy life or even get through the day.” 

Of course, I can relate. I remember feeling a deep, permeating sadness that I never thought would lift. My mind raced—and was exhausted. My body (quite literally) hurt. I felt like I was waging an invisible war in my mind, one where I was both friend and foe. There would be no victory, only losses. I was a martyr. A casualty of my own war. And the helplessness? The hopelessness? I cannot begin to explain how empty everything felt. How meaningless—and heavy—life had become.

I never spoke to anyone, though. As my thoughts became darker, scarier, and more erratic, I became quieter and more aloof. I drowned out the voices in my head with my Discman. (Yes, I’m dating myself here but, back in my day, we listened to music on CDs, or flat, shiny, round objects known as compact discs.) I cried often—at least until the day I didn’t. Until I blinked and there was nothing. Until the tears dried up. And I turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms. I began hurting myself. Harming myself. Later, there would be alcohol. I tried to numb myself to the emptiness. The nothingness. Happiness, I thought, was just (one more) sip away.

I remember feeling so alone—and god, that feeling, it permeated everything. Depression is brutal, but teen depression? It’s no joke. And while my depression eventually shifted (I am 39 years old and still live with a mental health condition) there are things I wish I knew back in the early days of my diagnosis. There are things I wish I understood. Here are a few facts about depression and, more importantly, teen depression. 

Teen Depression Is Common

While you may feel isolated and completely alone, millions of teens live with depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 15% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 experienced a depressive episode in the last year. What’s more, teen depression rates are on the rise. A 2022 study found that one in five teens regularly experience depressive symptoms.

Teen Depression Has Numerous Causes

While the cause of depression—and teen depression—remains unclear, certain factors can put one “at risk.” These include:

  • Having issues that negatively impact one's self-esteem, such as peer problems, academic problems, or bullying
  • Having been the victim of or witness of violence
  • Having other mental health conditions
  • Having a learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Having ongoing pain or a chronic physical condition
  • Having certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem or being overly dependent, self-critical, or pessimistic
  • Abusing/misusing alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs
  • Being a member of the LGBTQIA community in an unsupportive environment

Genetics can also play a role, as can changes to someone's brain chemistry.

Many Teens With Depression Will Outgrow Their Condition

Though the number of teens living with depression has increased in recent years, there is some good news: most adolescents outgrow their condition. According to one study, as many as 50% will.

Sadness Is One (But Not the Only) Symptom of Teenage Depression

While many people (and teens) living with depression experience sadness, it is only one symptom of this condition. Depression can manifest in a variety of ways, and not everyone living with depression will be or feel sad. Some common symptoms of depression include:

  • Emptiness and/or numbness
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and shame
  • Changes in your appetite
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts

A Depression Diagnosis Does Not Mean a Lifetime of Meds

There are a variety of treatment options for depression, and not every one involves medication. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the first-line treatment for moderate depression is therapy—specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

More severe depression usually improves with a combination of therapy and medication. In most cases, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are prescribed. Still, this does not mean you will be on "meds for life." Many people are able to manage their depression without long-term medication management.

That said, if you are on antidepressants for the long haul, that is OK too. There is no shame, and most of these medications are low-risk. The most important thing is overall health, happiness, and wellbeing.

Resources for Teens with Depression

If you or someone you know is experiencing depressive symptoms, know that there is help. There is hope. You are not alone.

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Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Trends in U.S. Depression Prevalence From 2015 to 2020: The Widening Treatment Gap. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 2022.

  2. The prognosis of common mental disorders in adolescents: a 14-year prospective cohort study. The Lancet. 2014.

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