Jerome arrived home later and later after baseball practice. When his mother asked why, he became defensive and stormed out of the room. He didn’t come out until it was time for school the next morning. As the weeks progressed, Jerome’s parents noticed that their 15-year-old became increasingly moody and irritable. When he did come out of his room long enough for conversation, he would have little to say.
The baseball coach called Jerome’s father to express his concern about Jerome missing several practices. When asked, Jerome said he was no longer interested in baseball, even though he recently celebrated winning the MVP title for the second year in a row. Time passed and the situation did not get any better. Eventually, Jerome’s parents learned that his grades were slipping dramatically. The once outspoken Jerome now seemed despondent and unmotivated in class. After a few weeks, what looked at first like a “normal teenage phase” seemed much more serious. What his parents didn’t realize was that their son was suffering from depression.
Recognizing Depression in Teens
“Depression is a real, common, and treatable illness that affects millions of Americans,” says Michael Faenza, president and CEO of the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). “As parents, we have to recognize that depression and other mental illnesses are just as real in children and teens as they are in adults.”
According to the Center for Mental Health Services, approximately one in thirty-three children and one in eight adolescents has depression. Although many recognize the warning signs of depression in adults—sadness, withdrawal, and lack of interest—many don’t realize that depression may look differently in youth. Besides feeling sad and hopeless, adolescents with depression may also complain of frequent headaches or stomachaches. They may also become irritable or act out.
“Sometimes we only see the behavior problem, like when a child comes home from school in a bad mood and slams the door. Parents are most likely to react to the slamming door—the manifestation of the problem—rather than the underlying issue,” says Bev Cobain, R.N.C., a psychiatric nurse and author of the book When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens.
What Depression Is
Depression is more than just “feeling blue” or having a bad day. Depression is a serious and common medical illness that affects a person’s mind and body. This disease interferes with one’s ability to function and feel pleasure. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, physical discomfort, and withdrawal from people and activities. People with depression can’t just “snap out of it,” but instead require treatment from a primary care physician or qualified mental health professional. “Ultimately, the consequences of undiagnosed and untreated depression can be extreme,” says Lindy Garnette, the mother of a teenager with depression. “Left untreated, childhood depression can lead to school failure, substance abuse, and even suicide.” In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for 5 to 14-year-olds.
Any Teen Can Suffer from Depression
It is common for parents to think that suicide is something that affects other families and not their own. Suicidal thoughts do not discriminate and do not only affect “problem children.” Thousands of kids, from diverse backgrounds, consider taking their own lives—not to get attention— but to stop the pain, anguish, and confusion associated with undiagnosed and untreated mental disorders. When depression goes undiagnosed and untreated, living a “normal” life seems impossible.
Mental disorders are very treatable once diagnosed by a primary care practitioner or mental health professional. In fact, most people with depression can be successfully treated. As with many illnesses, the key to getting better is diagnosing the problem and having access to appropriate treatment. The sooner the treatment begins the more effective it can be. Treatment options include psychotherapy (talk therapy), psychiatric medication, and support services such as peer support groups and social skills training.
“When a child has a fever, parents take the necessary steps to get medical care,” says Faenza. “The same priority needs to apply to treating mental illnesses. Kids want to know they can talk about their problems and that we, as parents, will help them do something about it.”