Teenage depression: a guide for parents

Depression is a serious issue which, if left untreated, can have a significant impact on every aspect of a young person’s life. Australian nonprofit  organisation beyondblue says it’s been estimated that 75 per cent of adult mental health conditions emerge before the age of 25, and around 550,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 experience some form of depression or anxiety.

Similarly, The Australian Government Office for Youth (2009) has identified one in three young people as experiencing moderate to high levels of psychological distress. Clinical depression in young people can potentially lead to drug and alcohol abuse, loss of confidence and self-esteem, selfloathing, self-harming behaviour, and even suicide. It is vital that parents, teachers and friends can identify the signs of depression so that their teen is provided with the help and support they need sooner rather than later.

Signs of depression:

Former Victorian Chief Child Psychiatrist and spokesperson for Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, Headspace, Dr Sandra Radovini says one of the things that distinguishes teenage depression from adult depression is the fact that it can be very easily missed. “Adolescence is a time of change so people tend to say, ‘oh she’s just being a moody teenager’; they miss the fact that the young person is experiencing significant difficulties.”

To ensure this doesn’t happen, parents must be alert and familiar with the signs of depression. “Parents may notice sadness that is persistent and more severe than normal and sadness that is having an impact on their child’s functioning and their enjoyment in life. Sometimes in adolescent depression the mood changes that parents might see are an increase in irritability and anxiety. The young person may also simply feel hopeless and helpless about everything,” explains Dr Radovini. There may also be significant changes in behaviour and the young person may not be interested in usual activities, or they may not seem to be enjoying themselves in a way that they normally might. “Things may seem to be harder and sometimes young people say that everything is boring,” says Dr Radovini. “There may be changes in school performance and they may become more withdrawn.

Additionally, when it comes to physical wellbeing, young people may complain of feeling tired a lot and may be excessively sleepy. There may also be changes in weight and appetite.”

How can parents help?
Dr Radovini encourages parents to talk to their child about their concerns. Parents and family are really important to young people. Studies have shown that young people who have supportive families actually do better than young people who don’t have a support network. “Sit them down and say, ‘I’m noticing that you don’t seem to be yourself, how are things going?’ Send a clear message to the child that you want to support them and find a solution to the problem,” Dr Radovini advises. “Tell them that they are loved and valued because, when depressed, young people tend to be overwhelmed with negative thoughts — ‘I’m no good, the world’s no good, nobody loves me, nothing’s going to go right, no one can help’ — so it’s really important that parents remind young people that they are loved and cared for.

“Try and also be calm, non-blaming and non–judgmental in relation to what you may hear or see. This can be particularly difficult for parents who have found out about any drug or alcohol use or selfharming behaviour. Remember that when young people are depressed, they are not functioning at their best and need your support and help even more.”

How can families cope?
Depression not only affects one person, it affects those around them. It is stressful for other family members if you’ve got a young person who’s not well, regardless of what may be wrong with them. “It’s important for parents to be aware of how stressed they’re feeling. Think about whether you need your own supports and where you might get these supports. It may be from other family members, or it may be a case of seeing a health professional yourself to make sure that you are best able to support the young person. “It is also important to be aware of siblings and how the other children in the family are faring,” advises Dr Radovini.

“Remember to do nice things together and to pay attention to the other young people in the home. This can be pretty tricky if you are pre-occupied by the young person who’s not well.”

Support in schools
If your child is experiencing depression, ensure that school staff members are fully aware of the situation so they can ensure the student is fully supported in this time of stress. Twenty-first-century schools now provide a range of welfare and pastoral care programs which are designed to empower young people and equip them with the skills to build resilience and cope with the challenges that they will face in day-to-day life.

“Like parents, if teachers have a good relationship with the young person, they are in a position to offer support,” says Dr Radovini. “They may also refer the student to welfare staff, who are further qualified and may be able to help.In addition, Headspace also does some work in secondary schools throughout Australia via its School Support Program.”

Seeking help and treatment
Treatment is very effective for depression and the earlier young people get help, the better. The first step to treating depression is talking to a trusted adult. After that, help may be a combination of getting support, educating the teen so they understand what’s happening to them, lifestyle changes, psychological treatment or, less commonly, anti-depressant medication. “Anti-depressant medication in young people is certainly not a first choice,” says Dr Radovini. “That’s something that is reserved for depression that is persistent or depression that is severe.

Ultimately, just like anything else, the earlier you get help with something, the quicker you get over it. Untreated depression can have all sorts of unwanted consequences in terms of a young person’s functioning, in terms of their relationships — both peer and home — and in terms of their school performance. Then there are the potential consequences of selfharming behaviour and suicide.” Sometimes an adolescent may not want to seek help. In this case, it is important to express your concerns and provide them with information about depression to help them make sense of what is happening.

There are also excellent websites designed to help young people experiencing depression as well as online and telephone counselling services. Some teenagers don’t realise that depression is a common problem and that there is help out there.

The Kid’s Help Line is a free 24/7, confidential and private counselling service that caters specifically for children and young people between the ages of five and 25. If your teenager would like to anonymously speak to a counsellor, simply call 1800 55 1800.

eheadspace also provides free anonymous online and telephone counselling and support for young people aged 12 to 25. This can be accessed on 1800 650 890 or via the website.

Similarly, beyondblue anonymously connects Australians with trained mental health professionals 24 hours a day via its hotline 1300 22 4636.

Dr Sandra Radovini is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist with more than 25 years clinical experience. She is currently the inaugural clinical director of Headspace, the director of Mindful, and senior lecturer in The University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychiatry. From 2009 to 2011, Dr Radovini was appointed as the inaugural Chief Child Psychiatrist with the Victorian Government’s Department of Health.

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