Reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Depression is a common mental illness that can affect individuals of all ages, including people in their teens. In fact, data from 2020 showed that teenagers and young adults had the highest past-year rate of depressive episodes of any age group.
While we often think of depression as involving sadness, the most common signs of depression in teens can be very different. Many teenagers become irritable, angry and sensitive to criticism when depressed, and issues such as social withdrawal are common.
If you’re in your teens and think you might be depressed, or you’re the parent of a teenager, it’s important to be able to recognize these signs and take action to receive expert help.
Below, we’ve explained the basics of how depression can develop in teens, as well as signs of depression to look for.
We’ve also discussed treatment options for depression in teenagers and young adults, such as therapy, medication and habits and lifestyle changes that can provide relief from symptoms and assist in recovery.
Major depressive disorder (MDD, or simply depression) is a serious mood disorder that affects just about every aspect of your life. It can cause mental symptoms that affect your moods and thoughts, as well as physical symptoms that affect your sleep, energy and wellbeing.
Depression in teenagers or depression in your early 20s is extremely common. In fact, one out of every five teenagers will have depression at some point.
Experts aren’t yet aware of precisely what causes depression to develop. Currently, research suggests that a mix of genetic, environmental and psychological factors are all involved in the development of most forms of depression.
Although the exact cause of depression isn’t known, researchers have identified specific risk factors for depression in teens. You may be more at risk of becoming depressed during your teens if you:
Have a family history of mood disorders or mental illness
Feel critical about yourself and have low self-esteem
Have difficulty socializing and making friends
Have problems with your parents or everyday family life
Experience a stressful event, such as divorcing parents or a death in the family
Go through a difficult personal event, such as breaking up with a partner
Fall behind in school or suffer from learning disabilities
Have a chronic illness or other physical health issues
Although depression occurs in both boys and girls, teenage girls are more likely to become affected by depression. In fact, their likelihood is double that of boys.
Depression is much more than feelings of sadness. When you’re depressed, you may develop severe symptoms that affect just about every aspect of your daily life, from your moods to your ability to enjoy certain activities, focus in school and connect with your friends.
Common symptoms of depression in teens include:
Feelings of extreme sadness, including persistent sadness that occurs most of the day
Finding it difficult to enjoy or find satisfaction in activities you normally like
Withdrawing from other people, including your parents, friends and romantic partner
Feelings of irritability and difficulty staying in control of certain feelings
Sudden outbursts of anger, frustration and other strong emotions
Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or that you’re guilty of something
Physical ailments, such as headaches, stomach aches and physical pain
A feeling that you’re physically tired and out of energy during the daytime
It’s normal to occasionally experience some of these symptoms. For example, many people go through periods of sadness and irritability. However, if these symptoms are unusually persistent or severe, they may be signs that you have clinical depression.
Some symptoms of depression can result in changes in your behavior and routines. You might notice that you:
Need to sleep more than normal, or find it difficult to fall asleep
Find it difficult to concentrate and fall behind in your school performance
Spend less time doing assignments, homework or attending school classes
Make changes to your eating habits, such as eating more or less than normal
Prefer to spend time by yourself instead of taking part in events and activities
Feel like drinking alcohol, using drugs, having unsafe sex or doing other high-risk things
If you have depression, you may also have other mental health issues, such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Depression may also co-occur with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa.
If you have severe depression, you may develop thoughts that involve death or suicide. This is called suicidal ideation, and it’s a serious issue that you, your family and other people that care about you should be aware of.
Signs of an increased risk of suicide include:
Openly talking about death or suicide
Sudden increases in risk-taking behavior
Saying goodbye to friends, family and loved ones
Giving away possessions to other people
Withdrawing from relationships with others
If you notice these signs in yourself, or if you’re the parent or friend of a teen that displays signs of suicidal thoughts or a potential suicide attempt, it’s important to seek help.
You can do this by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or your local emergency services (911).
Depression is a serious mental disorder, and if you think you’re depressed, it’s important to seek help.
If you’re feeling depressed, understand that it isn’t your fault. Depression can affect anyone, and being depressed doesn’t mean that you’re weak, that you’ve done something wrong, or that you should feel guilty about your feelings.
Depression almost always gets better with treatment, but in order to get treatment, you’ll need to talk to someone about how you’re feeling.
You can get help for depression by talking to a parent, trusted family member or by reaching out to your primary care provider. If you have signs of depression, your primary care provider might refer you to a mental health provider that specializes in adolescent depression.
If you feel uncomfortable talking to a family member about your depressive symptoms, or have a family issue that you think is contributing to your depression, you can also talk to your school counselor.
You can read our guide on how to tell someone you're depressed if you need more advice.
If you’re above the age of 18 and would like to seek help on your own, you can connect directly with a licensed psychiatry provider from home using our depression treatment online service.
Based on the severity of your depression symptoms, your mental health history and your needs, your mental health provider may suggest taking part in online therapy, using medication to control your symptoms or making changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Depression often gets better with psychotherapy, or talk therapy. This type of therapy involves talking about how you feel with a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a counselor.
Several forms of talk therapy are used to treat teen depression, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of therapy involves identifying and changing negative thoughts that cause you to feel depressed. It also involves developing new skills to cope with your feelings.
Psychotherapy is effective, but it can take time to work. You may need to participate in therapy for several weeks or months before you notice improvements in how you think and feel.
If you have clinical depression, your mental health provider may prescribe a type of medication called an antidepressant.
This type of medication works by changing the levels of certain natural chemicals, referred to as neurotransmitters, in your brain. Taking an antidepressant can help you to feel better and stop your depression symptoms from interfering with your everyday life.
Antidepressants can take three to four weeks to start working, and you may need to try several medications before finding one that works well for you. If you’re prescribed any antidepressant medication, don’t stop using it without first talking to your healthcare provider.
Sometimes, making changes to your habits and living a general lifestyle can help to make the symptoms of depression less severe. Try to:
Maintain a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly. Regular physical activity helps to reduce the severity of depression by releasing endorphins — natural chemicals that raise your mood. Even a short walk or bike ride might help you to feel better.
Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Try to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time each night, even on weekends. Aim for the CDC’s recommendation of at least eight hours of sleep per night.
Spend time with friends and family. It’s important to socialize with other people, even when you don’t necessarily feel like it. Avoid isolating yourself, as this could cause you to engage in behaviors that make your depression worse.
Focus on gradual improvements. Depression does get better, but it doesn’t happen in a single day. Focus on gradual improvements in your moods, levels of energy and other depression symptoms.
While you’re recovering, try to focus on effective self-care. Even small, simple things can make a big difference when it comes to your mood, thoughts and overall well-being.
Depression is a serious mental illness, and it’s important to pay attention to the early signs that it’s starting to develop. Early 20s depression could look different than depression later in life. These could be changes in your mood, a loss of interest in your hobbies or just difficulty staying focused at school.
If you’re in your teens and think you may be depressed, don’t feel afraid to reach out for help by talking to a family member of your primary care provider. If you’re above the age of 18, you can also seek help using our online mental health services.
Want to learn more about caring for your mental health? Our free mental health resources and content share simple, effective strategies that you can use to deal with common concerns and issues such as depression, anxiety and stress.
Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience.
As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.
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