It took me years to recognize the early signs of my own depression. I mean, I know what the symptoms are: sadness, guilt, irritability, trouble concentrating, aches and pains and loss of energy. But often I didn’t see those things in the mirror. Instead I just told myself pyjamas were more comfortable than clothes and then skipped going out with friends because, well, I was in pyjamas.
This is why when my teen daughter first started to get depressed I didn’t see it; if anything, she looked more carefully put together than normal. But her self-worth was dropping and her goofy jokes and smiles had disappeared. When we visited the doctor’s office he assured us both that she must be fine because she was still getting dressed every day. But she wasn’t fine—and I soon learned that depressed teens don’t necessarily look, or act like depressed adults.
It turns out 10-20% of teens will experience depression and many of us won’t recognize it for what it is. The reason? Our kids may not seem stereotypically sad. Instead, they might act out in ways that are pretty annoying. Many of us will end up blaming hormones or ‘just being a teenager’ when we see common signs of teen depression. But because depression typically sets in sometime between the ages of 15 and 30, recognizing the signs early may save our kids from years of pain.
What to watch for:
Trouble at School
Because depression can cause low energy and make concentrating difficult, school can become a problem for kids with depression. Ongoing poor attendance, a drop in grades, anger and discouragement with school work, or excessive stress are alarm bells that need extra attention.
Addicted to the Smartphone
This has been in the news a ton, and it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing; some think smartphone use causes depression, while others argue that depression itself leads to increased use. Either way, it’s clear that excessive smartphone use can increase social isolation which can exacerbate depression.
Aggressive and Antagonistic Behaviour
If your formerly sweet kid has become a jerk, don’t just write it off as hormones. Irritability and grumpiness, not just sadness, are common signs of depression in teens. Depressed teens are known to be easily frustrated and angered—and as parents, we’re often right in the firing line.
Those unexplained aches, pains, headaches and mystery stomach bugs aren’t necessarily an effort to get out of school; instead they may be symptoms of depression. The pain, like the depression, is hard to understand, but it’s real.
Drug and Alcohol Use
The teen years are a time of exploration and risky behaviour, so some experimentation is normal. But kids who are in pain may use drugs and alcohol in an effort to “self-medicate” their depression. Watch for shifts in friendship that lead to increased substance use.
Isolation and Poor Self-esteem:
Increased self-consciousness happens to most teen, but for some it can become so debilitating that they withdraw into themselves. Kids who sleep a lot, who give up activities and friendships that used to bring them joy, and who don’t seem to be moving forward in life may need extra support.
While we don’t know exactly what causes depression, the good news is it’s treatable. For my daughter, it started with a conversation. When she was finally able to tell me how bad she felt I promised her we’d work together until we found a solution. With support, she made a plan that included seeing a counsellor, eating well, getting regular exercise, spending in-person time with friends and family and doing the things she used to love—until she loved them again. It took some time, but one day I realized I had my silly, happy kid back. And we both knew what to watch for in case it happened again.
It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 30, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message (not iMessage) sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health initiatives. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, or using the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.