Adolescent Depression: Facts, Signs and Treatment

Adolescent Depression: Facts, Signs, and Treatment

Depression can strike at any time during a person’s life, but adolescent depression symptoms can look very different from depression in adults. Not only are the symptoms of teenage depression different, but treatment options for teens are different, too.

Untreated depression is a severe issue for the millions of adults that it effects. But when teenagers are hit with a bout of depression, it can cause serious functional impairment and harm their life trajectory. The teen years are a crucial building block and offer a springboard from which individuals launch into young adulthood. Without treatment, depression can severely harm individuals in their vulnerable adolescent years. So, what are the signs of adolescent depression, and what kinds of treatment options are available for teenagers?

Adolescent Depression: Facts, Signs and Treatment

What is adolescent or teen depression?

The teenage years are a time of marked change, increased academic expectations, and peer pressure. Increased stress and physical and emotional changes that are part and parcel to the adolescent years can make teenagers seem moody and withdrawn. It can be difficult for adults to discern if what their teen is feeling is a normal part of growing up or something more serious. When a teenager’s low feelings linger, it’s a symptom of depression.

Teenage depression, just like adult depression, is not an emotional weakness, or a sign of immaturity that can be overcome with willpower. Depression is a serious medical condition that requires long-term treatment and therapy. Thankfully, most teenagers find relief from painful depression symptoms with psychological counseling, and in some cases, combined antidepressant medication.

How does adolescent depression differ from adult depression?

Parents are often unable to recognize depression in teenagers because it looks different than adult depression symptoms. Teenagers often suffer in silence, and their symptoms are dismissed as growing pains or immaturity. It’s important that parents, peers, and school officials understand the signs of teenage depression.

There are four types of depression that affect adolescents.

  • Adjustment disorder
  • Dysthymia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depressive disorder

About 8% of all teenagers meet the criteria for major depressive disorder. Before puberty, boys and girls are equally affected by the disease. After puberty though, teenage girls are almost twice as likely to suffer from major depressive disorder than boys.

Depression can happen regardless of how supportive a teen’s family is, how popular they are, or how well they do in school. The most common symptoms of teenage depression include the following:

Physical Symptoms

Depressed teens tend to report more physical aches and pains than adults who are depressed. Adults are more likely to talk about their emotional distress. Depressed teens will often report frequent headaches, stomach aches, or a general, vague feeling of unwellness. Physical exams won’t reveal any abnormalities, though.


When an adult is depressed, they are more likely to describe a feeling of pervasive sadness or feeling “down.” Teenagers are more likely to become irritable and angry than sad. They may exhibit decreased patience and seem disrespectful and defiant. Although mood swings are a normal part of growing up, teenage depression takes these swings a step further. Irritability that lasts a long time, and starts to interfere with and impair a teenager’s life and relationships is a sign of depression.

Academic Problems

Depressed adolescents are likely to experience a decline in their academic performance, but this isn’t always a guarantee. Some depressed teens who have a milder form of the illness may have an easier time maintaining their grades than adolescents with a more severe form of depression. In some instances, a pressure to keep a high grade point average can trigger depression in teens.

Increased Sensitivity

Depressed teens are likely to experience increased sensitivity to criticism. They may avoid activities where they fear failure or rejection. On the flipside, some depressed adolescents may deal with this symptom of depression by becoming an overachiever or a perfectionist. For parents, it’s crucial that they monitor how their teenager responds to criticism, failure, and risk. Any marked changes in this behavior, or if fear of criticism begins to interfere with their teen’s social life and academic performance, is a cause for concern.

Social Isolation

Depressed adults and teens alike will often isolate themselves from friends and family during a bout of depression. The difference with teenagers is that they will not always completely isolate themselves. Instead, depressed adolescents are likely to switch peer groups during depression completely. They may start to associate with a “bad crowd” and stop talking to their usual friends or family members. Depressed teens are at risk of withdrawing from their usually enjoyable activities or social events, too.

Depressed teens are also known to engage in activities that enable them to escape from harsh realities. Studies show that teens, especially boys, who play video games for more than four hours per day show increased signs of depression than teens who don’t play for this long. However, teenagers who maintain strong friendships outside of video games can mitigate the risks of depression, even if they play games for long periods.

Who is most at risk of developing depression as a teenager?

  • Teenage girls are at higher risk than adolescent boys
  • Low-income and middle-income countries have the highest rates of teen depression
  • A family history of depression and psychosocial stress increase the risk of adolescent depression

What are the treatment methods for teenage depression?

Because of the changes in hormones and neurological pathways present in adolescents, medications are not always recommended as the first step in a treatment plan for depressed teenagers. It is much easier to prevent depression from forming in at-risk teens than it is to treat depression with medications. Many medications that are promising for adults increase the risk of suicide in depressed teens.

For adolescent depression, medication is usually the final resort. Teenagers with depression tend to respond well to increased social connections and therapy sessions for mild to moderate depression. For severe depression where suicide is a risk, a combination of medication and constant observation may be warranted. In severe cases, antidepressant medication can be a part of an effective, broad treatment plan.

If you suspect depression in your teenager, please contact a professional mental health counselor to explore your treatment options.