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Understanding and responding to the increase in teen depression

Published: Monday, July 21 2014 4:30 a.m. MDT

A family history of depression or anxiety, childhood trauma or abuse and chronic medical illness are all risk factors for depression, according to a report published by British Columbia Medical Journal.

“Another factor could be that we’re recognizing it more,” Singh said. As more parents and doctors understand the symptoms of adolescent depression, they are better able to differentiate between teenage moodiness and severe medical issues.

Signs and symptoms

The first step to treating depression is recognizing the symptoms, which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the normal anxiety that accompanies puberty and adolescence, according to an article about teen depression from the Mayo Clinic.

Chelsea Bown, a recent college graduate, was a senior in high school when she started experiencing depressive symptoms. She stopped caring about school, and her grades dropped. Her relationships with her friends disintegrated. Although she recognized that something was wrong with her, she didn’t believe it was anything that could be fixed.

“I thought I was a freak, because I was super upset and I hated life and I just felt so alone with everything. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was embarrassed,” she said, emphasizing the insecurity, self-loathing and loneliness that are common to those suffering from depression.

Other signs of depression in adolescents are fatigue, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or not enough, engaging in riskier behavior, irritability, and a loss of pleasure in things they used to enjoy.

Separation anxiety is present in about 50 percent of the cases of adolescent depression, according to a National Institutes of Mental Health report.

Depressive symptoms also last longer than typical examples of teenage angst, according to an NIMH report about identifying and treating adolescent depression. Rather than coming and going, the negative emotions and change in behavior continue for weeks or months at a time.

Early intervention

Despite the prevalence of depression among youths, only 38.9 percent of those experiencing depression received treatment in 2007, according to the NIHCM report.

Since the symptoms of depression are so similar to normal teenage anxiety, it’s important to talk to a doctor rather than self-diagnosing. The symptoms could also be a sign of a physical medical condition, such as thyroid disease, that will need to be ruled out through a physical examination and blood tests, according to the NIMH report. Once a doctor conclusively diagnoses depression, treatment can then move forward and further negative effects can be avoided.

“Early recognition can potentially prevent the onset and progression of depression into adulthood,” Singh said.

Depression has a tangible effect on brain function and development, meaning that the longer the mental illness goes untreated, the greater the chance of serious, irreparable harm to the teenager’s brain, according to Singh.

Teenagers are also more likely to harm themselves when depressed, according to a report from the National Institute for Health Care Management, and engage in self-destructive behaviors.

“Studies indicate that 90 percent of teens who die by suicide were suffering from an identifiable mental disorder at their time of death, typically depression,” the report states.

Depression can be an indication that the teenager is struggling with other mental health concerns, according to the 1990-92 National Comorbidity Survey. The NIHCM report referenced the findings, which showed that “77 percent of 15 to 24 year olds diagnosed with major depression had at least one other psychiatric diagnosis as well.”

“Among those with multiple diagnoses, 40 percent had anxiety disorders, 12 percent had addictive disorders, and 25 percent had conduct disorders."

What parents can do

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