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Is Your Teen Depressed, or Just Moody? Here’s How to Know.

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Dr. Meg Meeker

May is Mental Health Month. As a pediatrician, I am so glad we have a month dedicated to bringing awareness to the importance of mental health. After all, mental health affects physical health. I’ve seen many patients who have suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, you name it. When a child’s mental health suffers, the health of the entire family suffers.

One of the biggest mental health problems facing our children today is depression, especially in teens. Statistics show that in 2016, more than three million adolescents had a major depressive episode. (These episodes were far more common in girls than in boys.)

One of the biggest mental health problems facing our children today is depression, especially in teens.

Despite how prevalent this disease is, many parents are still uneducated about the signs and risks of depression in their children. With teens, this is difficult because some teens may seem depressed when they are actually just showing normal signs of teen separation, a crucial step in child development. This makes it hard to know if your teen is truly depressed, or just moody or tired.

You can know the difference by knowing the signs of depression and the signs that indicate normal teen separation:

Depression symptoms:

    Irritable or depressed mood

    Decreased interest or pleasure in normal, everyday activities

    Weight loss when not dieting or sudden weight gain

    Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)

    Psychomotor agitation or retardation (body is hyperactive or very slow compared to normal)

    Fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, or a sense of inappropriate guilt

    Decreased ability to think, concentrate or increased indecisiveness

    Recurrent thoughts of suicide or death

Normal teen separation behavior:

    Irritability that comes and goes or that is directed at only one person

    Desire to spend time alone in room for a few hours per day, alternating with engagement with family

    Increased sleep

    Staying up at night more than usual

    Fatigue that will go away if child increases sleep on weekends

    Desire to exclude parents from personal conversations

    Doing things that they know parents disagree with behind their backs

    Speaks contrary to parents and is argumentative

The main difference between depression and normal teen behavior is the severity and length of the symptoms. All teens can be irritable, but this should come and go and alternate with nice behavior. Depressed teens can’t “snap out of” bad behavior. Also, all teens need more sleep and are tired a lot but once they have a chance to catch up on sleep, the fatigue goes away. Fatigue doesn’t go away if a teen is depressed.

If you’ve read these lists and think you might have a depressed teen, your first step is visiting your pediatrician or an internist. Seeking professional help is crucial. Depression isn’t something you can fix by taking your teen out for ice cream or going to see a movie. It’s an illness, and it needs to be treated like one. Just like you would take your child to the doctor if he was throwing up or exhibiting signs of physical illness, take your child to the doctor when he is showing signs of mental illness too.

Depression isn’t something you can fix by taking your teen out for ice cream or going to see a movie. It’s an illness, and it needs to be treated like one.

It can be scary to be honest about your child’s mental health. None of us wants our child to be sick, and deep down we might be blaming ourselves for their illness. This makes us want to be in denial even more. But depression occurs in all types of teens for all types of reasons. The important thing is to get help and have a professional help you get to the root of the problem.

I’ve been a pediatrician for over 30 years and I can tell you that our bodies, mental and physical, are incredibly resilient. We are able to heal. I have hope for you, and I have hope for your child.

If you would like to learn more about teens and depression, the National Institute of Mental Health is hosting a Twitter chat today (05/03/18) from 3-4 p.m. ET on this topic. Learn more about that here.

To keep up with the Mental Health Month conversation, follow #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth on social media.

If your child or someone you love is exhibiting any of the risk factors and warning signs of suicide, you should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Your call will be routed to the Lifeline center nearest to your area code. More information is available on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website.

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