Know how to recognize childhood depression

Published 10:03 am Friday, May 22, 2009

The one thing that would surprise most people is that there really isn’t a description of a “typical” depressed teen. Yes, there are signs and symptoms to be aware of, but there really isn’t a single mold that these students fit into.

Depression is a complex illness, and many adults believe that kids can’t really be depressed. In the nine years I’ve been doing secondary guidance counseling, the thing that never ceases to amaze me is the number of kids we have who deal with such a variety of mental illnesses. In particular, I become aware of more and more students every year who struggle with depression.

Unfortunately, kids can be depressed, and it’s up to parents and teachers and other adults to help recognize when it’s a problem and help the student get the assistance they need.

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Statistics show that about 20 percent of teens will experience depression before they become adults, but less than a third of them will get help. Untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide, which is the third leading cause of death in teens.

Many people know or have heard some of the general signs and symptoms of depression: frequent sadness or crying, irritability or anger, withdrawal from family and friends, loss of interest in activities, changes in sleeping or eating habits, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, lack of energy or motivation, agitation, difficulty concentrating, and/or thoughts of suicide or death.

One problem with recognizing depression in teens is that many of them are also typical of just “being a teenager.”

Adults should consider how long the symptoms have been present and how severe they are.

The following symptoms are more common in teens than adults: irritable or angry mood, unexplained aches and pains, extreme sensitivity to criticism, and withdrawing from some, but not all people. If there is a teen in your life whom you suspect may be depressed, there are many options.

The Internet has a variety of screening tools and quizzes and a wealth of information on what to watch for. One such quiz can be found at

When a parent suspects their child is dealing with depression, I typically encourage them to make an appointment with their family doctor for an initial screening. Depression can be treated with regular visits to the family doctor, outside counseling or therapy, medication, or a combination of these. Most health insurance plans cover treatment of mental illness and some clinics use a sliding scale for fees. The cost of treatment is nothing compared to what might be lost if depression goes untreated.

If a teen ever expresses thoughts of taking their own life, I immediately contact a parent and recommend they have them seen by a doctor or their regular therapist as soon as possible. It is not up to us as the adults to determine whether they are “serious” or just “looking for attention.” Any comment like that is some type of cry for help and indicates the person needs to see someone.

Dealing and interacting with a depressed teen can also be a challenge for those close to him or her. The main thing family, friends, and other adults can do is to offer support and validate their feelings. No matter how silly or irrational some of the concerns may seem to us, they are real to the person suffering depression. Try to listen without lecturing — the important thing is that they’re communicating.

And if they at first shut you out, be gentle but persistent to let them know you are concerned and are willing to listen. Most importantly, be patient. Depression may come and go, and students who seem fine one day may be in a state of chaos the next, without any obvious reason for the change.

It is important to understand that teenage depression is not uncommon. I believe it has come to the forefront more every year, and it is a more acceptable and recognizable illness than in the past.

By educating the adults in our society, and teaching kids to recognize and accept symptoms in themselves and others, I also believe more students will be properly treated for their depression. Statistics have shown that 80 percent of teens with depression can be treated successfully.

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Amy Wallin is a seconardary guidance counselor and math instructor in the Alden-Conger School District. She has nine years of experience in guidance counseling.